||Johnny Guitar is a strange chameleon of a Western, one which changes its colours depending on the era in which it is being judged. Initially, in 1954 when it was released, it was regarded as something of a joke, not really taken seriously by the public and dismissed by audiences, with director Nicholas Ray having more than one reason to regard it as a minor personal disaster in a career that had previously been going very nicely, thankyou. But the French loved it, and helped make it a hit across the Atlantic, the film's over the top, barely contained hysteria striking a chord thanks to the perceived psychological angle bubbling under the surface.
So in the sixties, Johnny Guitar was a pretty cool movie to namedrop as its cult gathered pace, though even in America it was heading towards its reputation in the seventies and eighties, as a camp classic thanks to its star Joan Crawford being repositioned as one of the favourites of that crowd, both because of the strong female roles she was attracted to and for the stories of her private life which exerted a fascination. This culminated with her daughter Christina's publication of a tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest, which painted a portrait of the celebrity as a showbiz monster who ruled over her household with a fist of iron inside a velvet glove.
When Faye Dunaway starred as Joan in the Mommie Dearest biopic, what had been intended as a harsh expose unintentionally turned into one of the comedy hits of the season, as instead of sympathising with the hapless Christina, audiences loved Joan's bad behaviour and lapped up her ball-busting attitude to men. But in the eighties there were also rumblings that Johnny Guitar should be more aligned with Ray's more respected efforts like In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life, all works with a robust critical and cult acclaim: had the Crawford film been misjudged, and it was actually a searing indictment of McCarthyism, not Freudian at all?
It could be both, of course, but just try and name a cult Western from the fifties that was not afflicted with Sigmund Freud's writings, even the blockbusters had a dose of Oedipal conflicts and Electra complexes and heavy symbolism (all those phallic pistols and rifles!). But as the politics of the fifties were weighed up in the face of Ronald Reagan's conservatism and aggressive patriotism used to sweeten some very bitter economic and social pills, Johnny Guitar appealed to the liberal movie buff as an example of savage critique by stealth, as Crawford's rational, liberal Vienna is at loggerheads with the decidedly irrational, fascistic Emma, played superbly by Mercedes McCambridge.
The actresses' rivalry on the set was well documented, not least by Ray who dreaded going in to work and facing Joan. Despite her attempts at burying the hatchet, McCambridge was rebuffed continually as the bigger star viewed her talent jealously and feared she would steal the picture from under her nose, and Joan went all out to sabotage her offscreen (she scattered her costumes across a local highway) and on, as she insisted that Vienna and Emma have the climactic gunfight instead of the male characters so she could have the pleasure of murdering McCambridge - in fictional form, of course. Ernest Borgnine, who was one of the heavies in the picture, remembered everyone walking on eggshells around Joan as she could explode at the slightest thing, though wondered if Ray encouraged it.
Ray would have said, no, he would have far preferred a happy set, and his oft-recalled anecdote about having to stop his car on the way to work every morning to vomit on the road seems to testify to that. But these stories of Crawford's maniacal behaviour as she clung like grim death to her fame merely serve to boost her heroine status among the latter-day film fans, especially the female and gay fans who reclaimed her from being something of a joke from the nineties onwards, rendering her a star who had to fight tooth and nail to survive in the boys' club (and ageing male moguls' club) of the old Hollywood system. Her most famous rival, Bette Davis enjoyed a similar interest thanks to revivals of films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, which not only featured Crawford in an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" manner, but was the subject of a hit television series, Feud.
Which takes us to Johnny Guitar in the twenty-first century, where yes, it has its moments of camp and unintentional laughter, but mostly that intensity of feeling from behind the scenes and before your eyes as you watch has resulted in one of the most vivid of the cult fifties Westerns. Certainly, Barbara Stanwyck could have played the Crawford role, to pick a star who loved appearing in horse operas, but Joan gives the whole production a tension that is like little else in the genre, mainly thanks to McCambridge upping her game so as not to be swamped. Sterling Hayden played the title role, a gunfighter who does not carry guns (there you go, Sigmund!), but like every other man here he is in second place to the two women whose emotions run the town. And it seems modern, with Emma the sort of person who would rather ruin the world than admit they were wrong, and Vienna the voice of reason whose pleas for good sense are blown out of the way by prejudice and unthinking, eagerly stoked anger. Really, Joan and Mercedes should have swapped roles.
[Eureka release Johnny Guitar on Blu-ray as part of their Masters of Cinema line, packed with these special features:
Hardbound Slipcase | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration of the original film elements, framed in the film's originally intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1 | Brand new commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall, newly recorded for this release | Brand new video piece by Tony Rayns | Brand new video essay by David Cairns | Brand new interview with Susan Ray | Archival introduction to Johnny Guitar by Martin Scorsese | Trailer | PLUS: 60-page collector's book featuring new essays on the making of Johnny Guitar and on female gunslingers in the western genre, both by western expert Howard Hughes; an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum; and archival writing and ephemera]