Western as Lucid Dream – Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar was made just as Hollywood was beginning to, very slowly, resemble the system we have today. The days of screenwriters all locked up together in a script farm of bungalows, of directors being forced to hand their films over to editors they may well never meet like a factory production line, and where studio tyrants like Louis B. Meyer wrote long and strict rulebooks for filmmakers to adhere to seemed to be ending.

It’s at this time, in the early 1950’s, that the identity or style of a film began to be tied more to the director than to the studio. While once people identified an “RKO picture” or an “MGM picture” as a brand, now they began to recognize a “Billy Wilder” or a “John Huston” or a “Frank Capra” picture. “Cinema is Nicholas Ray” said Jean-Luc Godard. Nicholas Ray, of Rebel Without a Cause fame, is astounding for just how singular in style and form his films were, even though they were made when the Studio System still reigned supreme.

He made exciting action films like Flying Leathernecks with John Wayne, haunting Film Noir flicks like In A Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart, and films like Bigger Than Life with James Mason that I swear is a distant uncle of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver… but through all of these, nothing else was quite like Johnny Guitar.

Nicholas Ray’s Trucolor Western, starring Joan Crawford, Stirling Hayden, a very young Ernest Borgnine and the holy-crap-why-have-I-never-seen-her-before Mercedes McCambridge, is guaranteed not to be like any Western you’ve ever seen. It’s hyper-vivid colour palette and almost fantastical set design hits you immediately, but what soon takes the lead is the power of the script.

I was knocked out at the first confrontation between Joan Crawford and her nemesis played by Mercedes McCambridge. The strength of their performances carries the film throughout, helped no doubt by the fact that they apparently could not stand each other at all, so much so that Nicholas Ray said that mutual loathing was “heaven sent”.

While Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Ben Maddow play freely with the tropes of the Western genre, they do so not without taking a step to the left, and not without elevating it all so that every single element feels purposeful, put there to serve a greater message…

So, what’s that message? Johnny Guitar follows Joan Crawford’s saloonkeeper “Vienna” as she comes head to head with mistrusting townsfolk, scared of the change that Vienna and the coming railway represent. They are blinded by hate for what they don’t understand anything of other than that it promises to upend the way things always have been and ought to always be.

This witch-hunt serves as a perfect metaphor for the real-life Blacklist that tormented its screenwriter. Ben Maddow’s name is nowhere to be seen in Johnny Guitar, instead, Philip Yordan’s name’s the one up for all to see. Maddow, like Waldo Salt, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr. and dozens of others, fell ill of the almost-too-satirically-titled “House Un-American Activities Committee” set up to make sure anyone who’d ever, for even just an afternoon, bore communist sympathies would never work again.

Johnny Guitar was made right at the height of this when the names on the list just kept stacking up and stacking up and stacking up. “A lot of people didn’t find work, some people died, some people committed suicide,” Waldo Salt said later “I wish that we had done something to deserve us being blacklisted, I wish we had that much influence on film, or on the politics of the time… but we didn’t.” People from all professions within Hollywood were affected, they had to take on other names, move to television, or leave the country to have any hope to work again. This didn’t end until finally, Dalton Trumbo had his name up on the big screen again with Otto Preminger’s Exodus in 1960.

Johnny Guitar is a time capsule holding a style of filmmaking long gone, one of Joan Crawford’s best performances, a criminally underrated actor in Mercedes McCambridge, a connection to no question the darkest chapter in Hollywood’s history and so much more… Something makes me think that maybe, with the social climate at the moment, a film like Johnny Guitar might just be becoming relevant again.

WRITTEN BY :  Tom May

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Written by Dora Salmanidis