Johnny Guitar (widescreen)


Olive’s new branded line reissues the Nicholas Ray classic with a full set of authoritative extras — plus a never-before-seen widescreen transfer, in all of its Trucolor glory. Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden never looked better — we can all compare theories about la Crawford’s color-coded costumes. Just how masculine is Vienna supposed to be?

Johnny Guitar (Olive Signature widescreen edition)
Olive Films

1954 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date September 20, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 39.95 but heavily discounted
Starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Paul Fix, Rhys Williams.
Harry Stradling
Film Editor Richard Van Enger
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Philip Yordan from the novel by Roy Chanslor
Produced by Herbert J. Yates
Directed by Nicholas Ray

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Wow, it’s already been four years since Olive released a very attractive flat Blu-ray of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, plain-wrap as are most of their discs. I was disappointed that I’d never seen it in widescreen, and could see that the 1:33 transfer didn’t look as if it would matte well to the wider format. Answers about that came in slowly, from experts like Bob Furmanek.

But now Olive Films is inaugurating a new line of discs called Olive Signature, which it appears will revisit worthy titles for Criterion-style special editions. Being released at the same time as Ray’s film is an upgrade of Fred Zinnemann and Stanley Kramer’s High Noon, which I should get to soon. Johnny Guitar is out the gate first because Olive has remastered it with a 4K scan… and reformatted it at 1:66. The saints be praised.

The body of this review is much the same as the review from 2012, until one gets to the evaluation section further on down below.

I’m finally beginning to understand why Olive has so many interesting titles — ‘Melange,’ the holding company for Republic pictures like Johnny Guitar, is like the Elephant’s Burial Ground for unattached movies — independently produced or released titles that fell through the cracks over the years, like Sigma III’s oddball Italian acquisition / revision The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Walter Wanger’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Enterprise Productions’ Body and Soul. Olive has also released the exciting noir titles Plunder Road (Regal Films) and Try and Get Me! (Robert Stillman Productions), which the old Republic Home Video released on VHS back in 1990. Couple that with Olive’s new policy of English subtitles on every release, and the boutique label is looking mighty good these days.

Johnny Guitar is an exceptional screen western in every respect, and one of Nicholas Ray’s best films during his short run of ‘fifties masterpieces. Sometimes described as too stagey and talky, it’s a wholly lyrical and satisfying work of art in a stylized western setting, a beautiful construction of western motifs and characters. It stars Joan Crawford, whose show business notoriety and powerful personality have given the film a camp following. There is no ignoring the twisted gender games in the conception of Crawford’s gunslinging heroine.

On the other hand, Sterling Hayden’s musician/quick draw artist earns the status of legend the old-fashioned way. For western adepts that prefer a direct approach the show plays as a straight oater, without ironies. When taken as a stylized experiment with the movie western form — itself a stylized exaggeration of the reality of the frontier — Johnny Guitar becomes a work of art. Just at the start, the movie bears a unique look thanks to the odd hues of Trucolor. The visuals elbow the edges of artificiality from the get-go.

The story gathers enough interesting conflicts to qualify as an epic in miniature. Determined ex-prostitute Vienna (Crawford) has built a lonely saloon-gambling hall near a mountain pass. She chose the location from a tip given by a former customer: the railroad is coming through, and Vienna is set on founding and controlling a prosperous new town. But established local landowners John McIvers and Emma Small (Ward Bond & Mercedes McCambridge) recognize competition when they see it, and are committed to driving Vienna out. The sexually frustrated Emma is delirious with hatred for the desirable outsider, who she calls a “railroad tramp” to her face; she also has a desire/hate thing going with Vienna’s present beau The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). The Kid and his gang are working their secret silver mine when McIvers and Marshall Williams (Frank Ferguson) accuse them of committing a stage holdup in which Emma’s beloved brother has been killed. Taking the law into their own hands, McIvers and Emma would like to hang all of the ‘suspicious outsiders,’ Vienna included. Vienna instead stands her ground, refusing to yield to greed, hatred and hysterical sexual frustration.

Into this unstable mix comes a musician who calls himself Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). Mr. Guitar ignores the insults of the local elite and the provocations of The Kid, who immediately senses the mutual attraction between Vienna and her new entertainer. Johnny invites derision when he breaks the first rule of western heroics: he backs away from a confrontation “Because I’m not the fastest draw this side of the Pecos.” At one point he cradles a teacup in his hand. What is the real relationship between the mysterious Johnny and the hard-hearted Vienna?

Johnny Guitar doesn’t so much violate the rules of the genre as penetrate western stereotypes to expose the mythical archetypes beneath. Vienna is all things a woman can be, even if some of them are contradictory. She’s ruthlessly cynical and disillusioned, yet also a hopeless romantic. She’s seen every kind of man but holds out hope for a perfect mate. Our first sight of Vienna is of a woman dressed as a man, all in black, brandishing a six-gun. While we’re recovering from this encounter, Ray cuts to the bartender Sam as he walks calmly toward the camera and tells us what we’re already thinking: “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” The line is directed as a poetic aside to the audience. The rule that western politics be kept simplified is violated as well. The dramatic allusions to the blacklist and witch-hunt hysteria are direct and powerful. Hypocritical funeral mourners transform into a lynch mob with ease. The show is soaked in the slightly off-kilter, poetic vibe common to many Nicholas Ray pictures.

Actor Sterling Hayden developed a healthy contempt for the entire project, but it’s probably his most notable western. The initially ‘weak’ Johnny is one of his best performances, an excellent critique of the western rule that manliness requires one to be violent and deadly. The dismissive treatment of Johnny by the Dancin’ Kid and his gang only serves to elevate the character suspense, as we feel certain that Mr. Guitar will eventually show his true colors.

The film has fistfights, gunslinging provocations, a bank holdup, a fire, and a lynching party. The action plays out in hyper-scenic locations in Sedona, Arizona, landscapes constantly being dynamited by railroad crews, where lovers and outlaws use underground tunnels and secret waterfalls to escape capture and hide from society.

Crawford’s screen characters would soon become grotesque parodies of feminine allure, and finally labeled as conscious or unconscious camp. In Johnny Guitar she has the coloration of genre to hide behind but also a strong, interesting character to play. Film Interpretation 101 will of course zero in on the stylization in her costumes — the masculine Vienna in black blooms to virginal white when her romance with Johnny is rekindled. And why does she at one point revert to yellow, established before as the color of young Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper)?

The great critic Raymond Durgnat’s essay on Johnny Guitar in his book Films and Feelings floated a terrific theory about the ‘orchestration of characters’ in Johnny Guitar. Vienna is the one personality developed in a full three dimensions, including contradictory impulses. But the film’s male presence is broken up and divided across a number of characters with contrasting external attributes. Johnny is noble and regretful. The Kid is attractive and sexually aggressive. Bart Lonergan is a stupid brute. Corey (Royal Dano) is sickly and inoffensive. The intensely loyal Old Tom (John Carradine) aspires to be more than a feeble loser. Turkey would like to be Vienna’s lover, but he’s far too young and callow. Durgnat suggested that an alternate Johnny Guitar could be concocted to favor a male star. In that version, the hero’s personality would be given some of the contradictory qualities here spread out across several male characters. The Vienna character would be divided up into three or four contrasting women — the butch gunslinger, the virginal bride, the disillusioned woman with a past. It’s an important screenwriting lesson, understanding the difference between real people, genre ciphers, and thoughtfully ‘orchestrated’ dramatic characters.

Vienna’s extended catfight with the deranged Emma Small spilled over into real life, thanks to Joan Crawford’s all-dominating, all controlling personality. Crawford famously reacted to female competition like a vicious animal, and was noted for treating many of her actress co-stars terribly. Having brought the film to Republic in the first place, she set off a publicity firestorm over her hatred of Mercedes McCambridge, whose sin was not playing the passive simp Sister to the All-Powerful Joan. Crawford then demanded that the entire ending of the film be rewritten to favor the Vienna character and resolve the action through a personal combat between the two women. Although Crawford’s interference in later pictures is sometimes embarrassingly detrimental, Johnny Guitar’s finale is satisfying in the extreme. This is one picture improved by an out-of-control star ego.

Not the kind of director to force his will on the set, Nicholas Ray mostly retreated before Crawford’s demands. Ironically, in later interviews Ray spoke of Guitar as a personal disappointment. Today his show seems wholly inspired. The extended first act in the bar is a beautifully sustained piece of spatial blocking that establishes and articulates complex patterns of relationships.

Johnny Guitar also gets an A+ for political acuity. Westerns often reflect the issues of their time, but this script is a stylized political morality play. The central conflict is a struggle for control of the west, a competition for resources, property and ownership of the future. The entrenched landholders lie, kill and pervert the law to keep anyone else from gaining a foothold. The greedy McIvers and Emma bully and threaten their neighbors to drive out anyone that threatens them. Emma is a mass of festering hatred and jealousy, not to mention sexual mania. Most everything she says comes out as an unreasonable accusation. Unable to have The Kid for herself, Emma is willing to scapegoat him and demonize Vienna. Her fury whips McIvers and the posse into becoming a lynch mob. Johnny Guitar knows lynch mob psychology: “They’re men with itchy fingers and a coil of rope around their saddle horns, lookin’ for somebody to hang. And after riding a few hours they don’t care much who they hang.”

The ‘informing’ scene is an audacious expression of the witch-hunt. It paradoxically includes actor Ward Bond, Hollywood’s number one patriotic bully in the cleansing of political undesirables. Threatened with a rope, young Turkey is promised leniency if he will only name Vienna as a conspirator in a bank robbery. Emma browbeats him without mercy; she’s only after a legal pretext to hang them both. Turkey turns to Vienna as if asking for permission to betray her: “Tell me what to do!” Just the night before, he boasted that he would always protect her.

Actor Hayden’s account of his self-loathing after naming names to the HUAC amounted to a major public confession. Blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (Native Land, Intruder in the Dust) also recanted to the Committees in an effort to save his career. He was blacklisted anyway and his work went uncredited for seven years. Some versions say that Maddow wrote Johnny Guitar but that the dealmaker Philip Yordan took the full writing credit. Or is it true that Philip Yordan did write all of the film himself, as is now the prevailing opinion?

The beauty of Johnny Guitar can be seen in an unofficial remake by the Italian Sergio Leone, who had a nagging habit of appropriating successful movies by other directors. The epic Once Upon a Time in the West repeats Guitar’s plotline but with one-dimensional characters, gaining its power from a wholly different set of dramatic-aesthetic values. Ray’s film offers a social message while Leone’s is pure operatic mythomania. The New Wave film critics Truffaut and Godard were so jazzed by Johnny Guitar that they worked visual and verbal references to it into several of their movies. Perhaps the most perceptive reference to Ray’s film comes in Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The intensely romantic scene between Johnny and Vienna is projected in a recording room, to be dubbed into Spanish. Johnny’s voice is imploring, while Vienna reflects his words bitterly:

Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: All those years I’ve waited.
Johnny: Tell me you’d a-died if I hadn’t come back.
Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: I still love you like you love me.

The kicker is that in Women on the Verge, the voice artists doing the dubbing are similarly estranged lovers. The scene is equally affecting in the other language, and its dramatic truth is undiminished.

All these connections and ‘enlargements’ aside, Johnny Guitar has scores of intensely satisfying moments that don’t require special cinephile knowledge. We marvel at Mercedes McCambridge’s unrestrained mania as Emma Small, wheeling in rapture over the spectacle of the fire she has started in Vienna’s beautiful tavern. Each character is given a perfect dialogue moment, even the boorish baddie Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine). Frustrated at a partner’s refusal to join him in a craven betrayal of their friends, Bart stabs the man to death and then shouts out his self-justification: “Some people just won’t LISTEN!” Nicholas Ray’s splendid direction often elicits applause, as when an extremely smart edit shows Johnny deftly catching a shot glass rolling off the bar. The action also betrays the mysterious Johnny’s hidden gunfighter reflexes. When the climax explodes into all-out action, Sterling Hayden makes with a really exciting quick draw. All that and the great Peggy Lee singing a measure of the romantic title tune, and Johnny Guitar is a western for fans that really love the genre’s eccentricities.

Olive Films’ Olive Signature Blu-ray of Johnny Guitar is a dream disc in every respect. Back on the 2012 release the image behind the menu was a handsomely composed scene in widescreen. But when I looked look at the old flat transfer, it often didn’t seem appropriate for a 1:66 extraction. I wondered if it had been enlarged a bit, as was suggested by expert Bob Furmanek:

“Hi Glenn, I’m not sure if you’re doing the review, but here’s the data. Republic officially announced their widescreen cinematography policy on August 8, 1953. It was the last studio to do so. Johnny Guitar began filming on location in Sedona on October 19. Variety lists 1.66:1 as the ratio. Looking at frame grabs, this Blu-ray transfer appears to be zoomed in a bit. Best, Bob”

Matted to 1:66, the new disc will please everyone but fans of set design that want to see higher stone walls and deeper wooden floors in Vienna’s casino. The widescreen images look balanced. They focus the drama — no more ‘stripes’ of characters across the middle of the frame, with dramatically empty space above and below. Nicholas Ray’s arrangements of all those actors into architectural blocks can’t help but be a little schematic, and the widescreen makes the setups seem less static. With the larger image we see more facial detail as well. Of course, that means some of the poorly dubbed lines for the extras stand out more. Interestingly, what before seemed like vertical compositions look great in widescreen.

How exactly CFI/Republic’s Trucolor process applies to Johnny Guitar, I’m not certain. Wikipedia says that the camera process with two (and then three) colors was abandoned in 1953, when superior Eastmancolor became available. But the film’s color scheme is so unusual that it seems unlikely that the Trucolor name was used just to put a brand name on normal Eastmancolor processing. Without further research, I’m guessing that Johnny Guitar is to Trucolor the way Invaders from Mars is to Supercinecolor: the films were shot on Eastman stock, but color-designed so that acceptable prints could be derived with the cheaper processes. Where Republic would save money is on the hundreds of release prints that were necessary to float a nationwide release. (Watch this space should a reliable expert correct me on all this. Savant, baloney; the trick is not to pretend to know everything.)

I don’t think I’ve never seen an original Trucolor print; I doubt that anything seen on TV was printed in Trucolor. The one time I saw a Supercinecolor Invaders from Mars print, I realized that the projectionist might have to decide where to <i<focus his lens — with the color emulsions on different sides of the acetate base, technically both could not be in 100% focus at the same time. (But look at it this way – if one emulsion were ever-so slightly soft, it would look less grainy…)

So… I don’t know if the color here is anything like what an original Trucolor print would look, but it looks great — sharp and colorful in a way that gives credence to the revisionist critics’ interesting color-design-character theories. In some close-ups Joan Crawford’s VERY heavy makeup has so few flaws that it looks like a Kabuki mask, with a crimson sausage for lips. In the famous ‘lie to me’ scene she has what looks like very heavy wrinkling and discoloration under the eyes. The woman had the will to keep pretending youth and beauty for at least ten more years, but all that drinking has to show somehow.

The Sedona exteriors are gorgeous, as is that beautiful casino set. Colors that were somewhat mushy on DVD are very distinct here — as one of the commentators on the disc points out, the set’s decor uses several different shades of green where we previously saw only one. The only time the quality drops a bit is during opticals (fades, dissolves), the occasional special effect (a pretty wonky matte painting) and scenes with rear projection. And even they look better than they ever did. Note that in the final Vienna-Emma confrontation, Crawford’s singles are all process stuff done back in the studio so she can control the lighting. Don’t diss Crawford’s professionalism, as her matching for performance pitch is impeccable. For better or worse, nothing she does is accidental.

Fans that prefer Johnny Guitar projected flat may protest (“Look, we don’t see all of the cabin’s roof!”) but I haven’t an answer for them. I’m the one who wanted to see 99 River Street and It Came from Outer Space widescreen, only to be corrected by experts with access to the original data. But even I know better than to ask for Shane and From Here to Eternity widescreen, even though that’s how they were originally projected at their premieres.

Olive films is taking its Olive Signature mission seriously. The Johnny Guitar extras begin with an ancient Martin Scorsese intro, taped when he wasn’t yet comfortable as a film art host. But that’s followed by five good interview featurettes from accredited film scholars, and a couple of witnesses to the filmmakers, all of whom are gone now, excepting Ben Cooper. Marc Wanamaker gives us a once-over-lightly intro to Republic Pictures and Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich tackle the problem of deciding whether or not Johnny Guitar is a feminist western. A very good ten-minute piece takes on JC’s relationship to the blacklist years, with screenwriter Walter Bernstein and scholar Larry Ceplair, a colleague of my spouse at Santa Monica College. The featurettes (detailed below) reject fancy editing and fast cutting in favor of letting the spokespeople get their ideas out in full sentences. It’s a smart move.

Jonathan Rosenbaum contributes the text essay for the booklet, which is also encoded on the video as a text extra. An original trailer is in wretchedly faded color, but is a surprise all around: many cuts seem to be alternate takes or angles, and I caught one or two rewritten, overdubbed dialogue lines. Joan belts out of couple of her tough-talk lines more strongly in the trailer than she does in the feature.

This is an awfully tough year to pick and choose ‘best of’ achievements… right now Johnny Guitar is scoring highly on the, ‘out of Savant’s dreams’ list.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Johnny Guitar
(Olive Signature widescreen edition)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Introduction by Martin Scorsese; Audio commentary with historian and critic Geoff Andrew; Featurettes: Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein; Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich; Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures with archivist Marc Wanamaker; Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other, a critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich; My Friend, the American Friend, Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich. In the illustrated insert pamphlet, Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western, an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES!; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2016

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