Johnny Guitar


Johnny Guitar

A cult-classic western directed by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), in color, and starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The women wear the pants in this film, and Crawford plays a casino owner who is suspected of robbing a stage-coach.

Phil Hardy refers to this film, in his Overlook Film Encyclopedia, as: “Lyrical, baroque and giddy in a way few Westerns are, Johnny Guitar is a masterpiece. (Philip) Yordan’s trance-like dialogue, Hayden and, in particular, Crawford’s mannered performances (as they endlessly torment each other, testing their loves), (Harry) Stradling’s garish, almost surreal, Trucolor lighting and James Sullivan’s wonderful sets are all contributing factors but it’s Ray’s grandiose, neurotic direction that brings these elements to life and makes the film so powerful.”

Crawford is great and commanding in the film. The fact that her nemesis is also one heck of an alpha-female with a preternatural ability to command her posse of men make this a truly welcome and unusual viewing experience.

And Sterling Hayden! Remembered fondly by many for his role as Brig. General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), here he gets some great lines too. I remember reading an article about him in Variety three years ago that talked about how he fled Hollywood to go off on a drunken sailing expedition to Tahiti back in January of 1959. Looking it up now I find a memorable excerpt:

The ex-marine hired a six-man crew for the journey, leaving in his wake creditors, lawyers and Warner Bros. executives who expected him to star in A Summer Place. Hayden took with him his four children, even though he was forbidden from doing so by court order as part of a divorce custody battle. By the time he got to Tahiti he was broke, and dreams of becoming a Kon Tiki man never materialized…

Up until his death in 1986, Hayden still held much of the industry in scorn, although he never really escaped its grasp. His description of his own films could justly apply to many a modern tentpole: “Bastards, most of them, conceived in contempt of life and spewn onto screens across the world with noxious ballyhoo; saying nothing, contemptuous of the truth, sullen, lecherous.”

(Excerpts from VLife, Dec/Jan 2005, “Wanderlust,” by Preston Neal Jones)

While maybe the adjective of "lecherous" used by Hayden can be used to describe Johnny Guitar, a great many others - and far more positive ones - could also be used to describe this very unique celluloid offering.

Johnny Guitar


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