Director Nicholas Ray is best remembered for Rebel Without a Cause; leading man Sterling Hayden is probably best known either for his role as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove or as corrupt police Captain McCluskey in The Godfather; while leading lady Joan Crawford is best known to most modern audiences for her part in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As such, 1954’s Johnny Guitar may have bypassed many modern film fans. To remedy this, Eureka Entertainment have given it the full home release treatment through its consistently excellent Masters of Cinema range.
The film tells the story of Vienna (Crawford), a saloonkeeper who has a terse relationship with the local townsfolk. In a plot point later echoed to a degree in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the railroad is about to come through the town, bringing with it a positive effect on the value of the saloon, but with a more negative outcome for the cattlemen’s way of life. Vienna is in favour of the railroad, one of several things putting her at odds with others. The locals led by John McIvers (Ward Bond, Bert the Cop in It’s a Wonderful Life) and the repressed, tightly wound Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, probably best remembered now as the demonic voice in The Exorcist) are determined to force Vienna out, and a stagecoach hold-up gives them the perfect opportunity.
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Facing them down, with the help of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Hayden), Vienna is, nonetheless, given 24 hours to leave the town, along with Johnny and her former beau The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) – the man believed to have committed the stagecoach robbery. Johnny turns out to be a man by the name of Johnny Logan, also a former love of Vienna’s, and the film hints strongly that she acquired the money for her saloon through less than wholesome means. There remains a powerful bond between the two, and they begin to draw close, into a relationship that we can see will always be spiky. When the Dancin’ Kid later holds up a bank, with Vienna in attendance, this gives Emma the pretext to link her rival to the crime, and she leads a posse to the saloon, where matters escalate leading to a final showdown at the Kid’s secret hideaway.
The film itself sports an immaculate restoration, leading to a genuine feeling when watching that it’s far younger than its 67 years. Performances are excellent, sporting nuance and depth that is, in some ways, a little ahead of its time. It is a work that we can see the influence of in many later works, with a female lead resolving her own problems – something unprecedented at this time, certainly in the western genre. There are emotional entanglements, but our lead is never defined by the men in her life. She sports the strength to face down a determined rabble, in a tour de force 35-minute opening act, where Crawford dominates the scene. Even at 110 minutes though, it is fair to say the film feels just a few minutes too long. It is worth investigation, however, as it was a game changer for the representation of women in cinema, and is a marker for where the western would go as a genre in the two decades that would follow.
Bonus Features are at the upper end of the Masters of Cinema quality range. Although it is normally mentioned last when reviewing these sets, pride of place this time must go to the accompanying collector’s booklet. At 58 pages this is over double the length of that provided for most entries in this series. The first essay, ‘Spinning the Wheels of Fate’ is from historian of the western genre Howard Hughes, and discusses the making of the film in depth.
His second essay ‘Hell’s Belles: Females Gunfighters, Outlaws and Gamblers’ provides fantastic context for where this movie sits in the history of women in cinema, with a focus on the move from the female as passive, to a more active role, possibly beginning with Marlene Dietrich in 1939’s Destry Rides Again. It is a fine essay, and the centrepiece of a booklet made with love and care. Finally, there is an archival interview with the director, a truly intriguing figure, whose ‘charms’ are best discovered by the viewer, rather than relayed here.
The commentary for the film is provided by film scholar Adrian Martin. He is a veteran of these sets, and excellent value, as he discusses the cast, the director, the making of the film, tensions on the set, and a range of interesting tales. He is always engaging, though as with previous Masters of Cinema sets, once again no-one takes the time to tell us who they are or why their opinion matters. A few seconds at the start to tell us a little about himself would have been welcome.
Along with an introduction to the film from Martin Scorsese (which looks like it would have been shot in the early 1990s), other bonus features include conversations with Geoff Andrew, author of a book about Ray’s film (though we got that from the release’s promotional material, as nothing on screen tells us who he is) and Tony Rayns, a noted film historian, in a bonus feature very like his contribution to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Both are around 15 minutes and decent listens.
‘Never is a Long Time’ is a circa 24-minute video essay by David Cairns, which is beautifully put together and an elegant piece of work, giving us a great potted history of the filmmaker, and the making of the film. Along with the commentary this is probably the best source of information about tensions on the set and the behaviour of Crawford, along with the difficulties she and McCambridge had with each other.
Finally (after the obligatory trailer – perhaps the most spoiler-heavy in memory – and an alternate set of opening titles) we get to ‘Stranger’: an almost half-hour interview by David Cairns with Nicholas Ray’s widow Susan – complemented by a short contribution from Jim Jarmusch. As she was 18 when she met the director, then in his late-50s, she is still a relatively young woman, and is terrific company as she discusses her husband, even giving excerpts from his writings, including his book Don’t Expect Too Much, and featuring a wealth of pristine photographs from his life.
The best entries in the Masters of Cinema range stand out less for the choice of movie and more for the degree of genuine love and affection for historic cinema that comes through in the set they curate. Johnny Guitar, as a film, is not necessarily one of the standout releases in this collection, but the earnestness of the bonus content, the quality of the writing in the booklet, and the storytelling from scholars contributing to the onscreen content make this one of the better releases from Eureka Entertainment in some time. This is up there with their release for The African Queen, even if the film itself is not quite at that level.
Johnny Guitar is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.