Directed by Nicholas Ray
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
"I'm a stranger here myself."
Johnny Guitar is one of the brilliant oddities of the classical Hollywood cinema, proof that that long moment in American film history, so often condemned for sameness, could produce films of stylistic uniqueness and deep feeling. Produced for minor studio Republic Pictures, Johnny Guitar let Ray craft his darkly hopeful existentialist vision of humankind on the biggest canvas of all: the movie screen. Nominally a Western, Johnny Guitar is the story of a curious drifter (Sterling Hayden) who reconnects with a woman from his past, the saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), intruding on her small outback vice empire just as a crime has aroused the local citizenry, ring-led by the vicious Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) to play out their anger at Vienna's unconventional and independent life. Johnny Guitar will be an engaged observer and occasionally an unwilling participant in the violent confrontations between Vienna and the townsfolk.
But that's not the half of it. Johnny Guitar is a film that overflows with such melodramatic passion and visual excess that even the most baroque Westerns of the day, like Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious, seem straitlaced by comparison. Relentlessly feminist, Johnny Guitar examines the costs of a woman's independent action through lurid, violent exaggeration.
Johnny Guitar is the work of one of the American cinema's most Quixotic figures, Nicholas Ray. Born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin in 1911, Ray was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, and then active in WPA arts projects and American Popular Front culture in the late 1930's and early 1940's. He came to films in 1947 with a brilliant debut, the couple-on-the-run noir They Live By Night. From that film to the end of his life, Ray's cinema lavished attention on the misunderstood, the marginalized, the forgotten men and women of America and the world. He chronicled their inner hurts so empathetically that sometimes it seemed he must be living inside their skin. In widely-known films (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause, King of Kings) and lesser-known masterpieces (On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Bigger than Life), Ray presented icons of loneliness, solitary beings fighting to be understood, finally to be loved, in a world often gone asinine and hypocritical. Almost all his characters are doomed to death or disappointment, but Ray sends them out gloriously, his harrowing narratives having given them (and us) a chance to touch the sky. Nicholas Ray was one of the few undiluted Romantics in all of American cinema.
Ray's sustained compassion for the outsider on the screen found acolytes in those who saw themselves as outsiders in art as well as life. In particular, he was adopted by the cultural provocateurs at the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950's, who found in Ray's social iconoclasm and his emphatic and personal style a confirmation of their own desire to make of the cinema an autobiographical, even a confessional tool. A young Jean-Luc Godard famously remarked, "If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to." Godard later packed Cahiers' awe and affection for Ray into a single memorable epigram: "The cinema is Nicholas Ray."
Johnny Guitar is overdetermined, allegorical, and richly stylized. One reason it seems to me that Johnny Guitar hasn't been adapted into an opera is that, in Nicholas Ray's hands, the film already is an opera. Ray's camera cooperates with the film's scene designers and screenwriter Philip Yordan to craft arias of prideful nonconformity by Vienna, duets of simultaneous repulsion and longing between Vienna and Johnny, and recitatifs of vengeance by Emma, the thin-lipped, hyper-masculine leader of the town's death squad.
Ray disliked Johnny Guitar, although the film had turned out very much as he had hoped, because seeing the film always reminded him of the agony of working with Joan Crawford. (The cult reputation the film has enjoyed overseas since its release always surprised and gladdened him.) For Crawford, shooting at lowly Republic was several steps down the ladder from her days as queen of the lot at MGM and then Warners, and she let Ray and everyone else on the film know it, with temper tantrums, demands for more scenes and close-ups, and wholesale desertions. Once when Ray was to shoot a climactic dialogue scene with Mercedes McCambridge's Emma, in which Crawford was not to appear, he looked up and saw Crawford glowering down at the crew and McCambridge from an outcrop of rock, determined to unnerve the younger actress. It didn't work, obviously, for McCambridge's Emma is perfectly in tune with the high-pitched, hysterical tone of the entire film.
The casting of Sterling Hayden as Johnny was more than fortuitous. Hayden had, in a burst of guilt and greed, agreed to a ritual "confession" of his Communist past in front of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC) a few years previous. As part of the drill, Hayden was required to "name names" of people he had met at meetings or believed to be Communists. A conflicted Hayden found himself suddenly in demand as an actor and mortified at the way he'd achieved employability. In his 1963 autobiography, Wanderer, Hayden would become the first of the ex-"friendly witnesses" to admit genuine shame at having succumbed to the pressure to testify. Woven among the stinkers in Hayden's post-HUAC filmography are a few films, like The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, and The Godfather, all of which examine the ethics of betrayal and informing. Meanwhile, there have been persistent rumors that Johnny Guitar's screenplay was written as an indirect indictment of HUAC by a Blacklisted screenwriter; Johnny Guitar's screenwriter of record, Philip Yordan, was well-known as a regular front for the Hollywood Ten writers and other Blacklistees.
Ray's outspoken manner eventually made him unemployable in Hollywood. After the epic 55 Days at Peking in 1963, his projects diminished in scale, becoming smaller and smaller until he began making little essay films on 16mm, many of them left uncompleted when another idea struck his fancy. Like Johnny Guitar, Ray would spend the rest of his life a wanderer, a troubadour of cinema, haggard, laughing, and bitter. He was an itinerant teacher of film, a grand inspiration to young filmmakers like Wim Wenders, and a political gadfly. His young admirers in France grew up to be the directors of the French New Wave, and their love for Ray and his art never wavered. Ray was attending a retrospective of his films in Paris in May, 1968, when an announcement came that students and workers had taken to the barricades to occupy the city in a massive protest that would radically change continental politics and art. When the lights went up, Ray went out to join them. Not surprisingly, the film that had just been screened was Johnny Guitar.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.