Friday, October 16, 2009

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

"There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." - Jean-Luc Godard

I watched Johnny Guitar last night and all I have to say is - let the gushing begin.  Seriously, Johnny Guitar is what cinema was and still should be.  Combining Ray's unique talent for visually luscious filmmaking with a genre redefining of the western - Ray's film can be quite ambiguous when it comes to who is wearing the white hat and who the black - dialogue that is beautifully over the top and a not-so-veiled stand against McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting.  And on top of all that - Joan Freakin' Crawford!

The film that Truffaut once called "Hallucinatory Cinema", Johnny Guitar is almost magical in its approach to what film is (and again, still should be).   Watching it on the big screen (as I finally did after years of adoring it sitting on my couch in my living room) one is mesmerized by each and every frame of this sexy, delicious, ravenous piece of film history.  Nary a false note is heard - a thing that can be said of only about six or seven films of the thousands and thousands and thousands ever made.  And on top of all that - Joan Freakin' Crawford!

Derek Malcolm of The Guardian said of the film, "This baroque and deliriously stylised Western, along with Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious and Raoul Walsh's Pursued, proves it is possible to lift the genre into the realms of Freudian analysis, political polemic and even Greek tragedy."  Amen brother.

Other westerns of the time delve deeper than the typical genre-specific Hopalong Cassidy territory of the earlier mode - The Searchers is a Freudian masterpiece for sure and the films of Anthony Mann (and to a lesser degree Budd Boetticher) have stretched the ideas of right and wrong to whole other ballparks - but it was/is Johnny Guitar that puts them all to shame, not only in its sheer gorgeousness of set, costume and photography, its brilliantly subversive screenplay ("written" by Philip Yordan as a front for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow) and/or its richly textured (and verging on camp) performances but also in its power to transcend even the very cinema Godard spoke of and become one with the gods so to speak.  Hey, I told you I was going to gush!

And on top of all that - Joan Freakin' Crawford!  A comeback of sorts, Johnny Guitar, no matter how masculine the western genre typically is, is whole heartedly Joan's picture to win or lose.  The film's tagline reads: "Gun-Queen of the Arizona Frontier ! . . . and her kind of men !!!"   The auteur theory aside for a moment - after all this is really Nick Ray's picture to win or lose - it was Crawford who bought the rights to the novel by Roy Chanslor and put the whole kit and kaboodle in motion in the first place and it was Crawford who was taking a chance on reinventing herself.

Derek Malcolm (again) said of Crawford, "What she does in the film transcends either camp or melodrama. It's like watching a legend at work throwing off her previous baggage and gaining a new acting skin."  Perhaps this was the last of her great pictures (though her bloody duet with gal pal Bette Davis a few years later may beg to differ) but nonetheless, Malcolm's words ring true.  We won't even bother going into her on set feud with costar Mercedes McCambridge (wasn't there always one of these?) or the divaesque insistence on having all her close-ups filmed in studio where the lighting could be better staged.  After all, it's Joan Freakin' Crawford - what would one expect?

Sure, there may be flaws (you didn't think I could really be uncritical did you?) but someone once said (it may have been Truffaut, not sure) that every movie has flaws and it is in these flaws that is born something special.  Okay, I may have made that up, who knows, but it is something to believe in. Film lovers are sick people (Truffaut really did say that!) and that can be proven in the fact that we, the aforementioned sick film lovers, can love a film not in spite of its flaws and blemishes but because of them.  Sick.

But for now, let's forget all the critical and analytical mumbo jumbo and end on a much simpler note.  To quote Johnny Guitar himself (see, it's not all about Joan after all) - "There`s only two things in this world that a real man needs.  A cup of coffee and a good smoke."  Fin.


La Communauté de pratique de GESTAR said...

Talking about Freudian Westerns I would like to mention Howard Hawks' great use of John Wayne in Red River.
I 'll have to grab Johnny Guitar cause ain't seen it yet but you incite the thirst with that post. After seing In A Lonely Place and Rebel Without A Canse I can say that Nick Ray's the Man!

Kevyn Knox said...

Nick Ray certainly is the man. I agree with you on Red River - and I could've talked about some other Ford's such as My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. On Dangerous Ground is another great Nick Ray.

Unknown said...

At the insistence of a cousin whose guest I was, I saw Johnny Guitar on late night TV in the late 60s expecting a cheesy western musical and was delighted by the story of two women in a conflict that in all other westerns would have been between two men. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford were great. I don't want to give any spoilers so I can't say more about the plot. I must say though, what's with the stupid title? The eponymous character was just there for an expository POV.

Alex DeLarge said...

Love me some Johnny Guitar! This is unavailable in the US on DVD: which version do you own? I have been trying to get the Spanish Steelbook Edition but it's OOP. Thanks for mentioning this mostly overlooked Western and great film in Ray's oeuvre.