The saloon which bears her name built into the rock on the side of a mesa in the mountains of Arizona, Vienna is a woman of ambition and determination, having ascertained the route of the forthcoming railroad and pitched her stake to take advantage of it upon arrival much to the chagrin of the townsfolk, the resentment boiling over when the brother of her long-time rival Emma Small is killed in a stagecoach holdup.
The heist is blamed on the “Dancin’ Kid” and his gang, ostensibly silver miners who have a hideout somewhere nearby, friends of Vienna’s so she can share the blame though there is no evidence to link any of them with the killing, but with Vienna told she has twenty-four hours for her and the gang to clear out of the territory they each have choices to make. Vienna opts to stand her ground, but the Dancin’ Kid chooses to leave having robbed the bank run by the Small family, sealing the perception of his guilt.
Directed by Rebel Without a Cause’s Nicholas Ray from a script credited to Philip Yordan – known to often act as a front for blacklisted writers – Johnny Guitar was based on the pulp Western novel of the same name by Roy Chanslor which carried a dedication to Joan Crawford whom he had envisaged at the model for Vienna, an act which brought the novel to her attention and led her to option the screen rights with a view to starring in the subsequent adaptation.
Despite the trappings – the desert and mountains, the saloon of drinking and gambling, gunfights, disputes over land, and horses aplenty to ride into the sunset – Johnny Guitar broke as many rules of the genre as it adhered to, the principal rivalry between two women, Crawford’s Vienna, willing to grit her teeth and accept the necessary in order to get the job done, and Mercedes McCambridge’s bitter Emma, her mind set on nothing less than the humiliating defeat of the “railroad tramp” who has set up on the outskirts of her town.
Released in 1954 and now making its Blu-ray debut as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, Sterling Hayden takes the title role of Johnny “Guitar” Logan, a former fast-drawing sharpshooter who has tried to reinvent himself but finds himself obliged to return to his old ways when Vienna’s situation becomes complicated by the accusations levelled against the Dancin’ Kid and his gang, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano and Ben Cooper.
The colour process not quite perfected, the 4K transfer emphasises the stunning locations but also the unnatural skin tones, Vienna is more inclined to be a businesswoman than a mother but who finds herself in just that position as she is forced to marshal the squabbling menfolk, while in the supporting features Geoff Andrew and Tony Rayns separately considering the themes of the film and its impact in Europe while David Cairns offers analysis in the context of Hollywood, the Western genre and Crawford’s career and legendary fractious relationships with her costars, the unconventional showdown finale having been rewritten on the hoof to the specification of the star while leaving other plotlines hanging unresolved.