Friday, April 11, 2014

Classic Cinema Corner: Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar and How Joan Freakin' Crawford Helped Untame the Not So Wild West

"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 again last night and all I have to say is - let the gushing begin. Seriously, Johnny Guitar is what cinema was, once upon a time, and what it still should be. Combining Nicholas Ray's unique talent for visually luscious filmmaking and stark raving mad narrative, and with dialogue that is beautifully over the top and a not-so-veiled stand against McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting, the favourite director of the French New Wave, and one of the reasons behind the auteur theory coming into effect, creates 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, and two years before John Ford's The Searchers, can be seen as one of the first revisionist westerns. 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, dammit. Watching it on the big screen (as I finally had the opportunity to do a few years ago, after years of adoring it sitting on the 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 a handful of the thousands and thousands and thousands of films ever made. 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. I agree that Rancho Notorious (starring another aging but still outspoken iconic figure of the cinema, Marlene Dietrich) is the other psychologically powerful (and psychologically ambiguous) early revisionist western of the time. And on top of all that - Joan Freakin' Crawford!

Other westerns of the time did indeed delve deeper than that of 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 (a delectably gorgeous work, inside and out), its brilliantly subversive screenplay ("written" by Philip Yordan as a front for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow) taking on much taboo subject matter for it's not so hidden background meanings (taking on the subjects that were the reasons behind Maddow's wrong-headed blacklisting in the first place), and/or its oh so richly textured (and, like the aforementioned Rancho Notorious two years earlier, 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! Oh, and on top of all that - Joan Freakin' Crawford!

Yes, let's finally get around to Joan Freakin' Crawford. Ray's film also stars Sterling Hayden (as the titular guitar-swingin' anti-gun man), Ward Bond, Ben Cooper, Scott Brady, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Ernest Borgnine, and Mercedes McCambridge (who would steal the picture if not for Joan), but this is Joan Crawford's movie. No doubt about that. A comeback of sorts for Crawford, Johnny Guitar, no matter how masculine the western genre typically is, is indeed 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 (and he wins!) - it was Crawford who bought the rights to the novel by Roy Chanslor and it was Crawford who put the whole kit and kaboodle together and in motion in the first place, and it was Crawford who was taking a chance on reinventing herself after years of artistic and professional struggle in the male-dominated studio system of the day. 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 else could, or should, one expect?

And sure, even though I did write above that nary a false note is heard in Johnny Guitar, there may indeed 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 (I do remember reading this somewhere in one of my myriad of cinema books, but could not find it referenced anywhere online), 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."  This post has been brought to you by the Letter J. Click on the banner below to have that one explained. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. Don't kill me....I have not seen this movie-Gulp, Aghast! It is always on my 10 ten and I never get around to it. I am not a Joan fan but appreciate her acting talent. I know that Mercedes got a standing O by the crew for a scene she did and afterwards, Joan would manipulate things to bother her. Mercedes blames Joan Crawford for hurting her career afterwards out of jealousy-Ahh gotta love those film nuts:)

  2. Don't worry, I won't kill you... yet. Actually, Johnny Guitar probably isn't all that well known of a film outside of cinephiliac circles. Yeah, Joan could be quite the beast to fellow actresses. McCambridge's career never did get all that big, and that could have been because of Joan (wouldn't surprise me) but her voice, as Satan in The Exorcist, does live on in scary-as-Hell fashion.

    Thanx for stopping by. Glad to have a seeming regular 'round these parts.

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