Thursday, 3 March 2011

Johnny Guitar (1954) - Nicholas Ray

As I sit in my kitchen writing this review two days after catching Johnny Guitar at the cinema, I still can't make up my mind about what I thought of it. On the down side I thought it a little overlong and very over dramatic, however I was absolutely shattered and felt like I needed to have a sleep, not watch a film. So not the best conditions to watch a slow burning drama under. The plus side far outweighs the negative though, seeing Crawford rip through everything in sight like a barely restrained pit bull is the sort of thing that would bring me back for more. The same goes for the supporting cast (i.e. everyone else), who are all acting in Crawford's formidable shadow. Special mention in particular to both Mercedes McCambridge who gives as good as she gets and stops the film from becoming lopsided, and Sterling Hayden who gets some juicy lines and as one of the greats is always watchable.

I get the feeling that maybe Nicholas Ray's films are always better on second viewing, after all that was definitely the case with In a Lonely Place for me, so maybe it's the same with this. The thing is I've never been a huge fan of melodramas, and if Johnny Guitar is one thing it's a melodrama. It's also one of the strangest films to ever have a western tag hoisted upon it, all those usual things that one comes to expect from a western are either absent or shoved way into the backround. If anything this is an anti western, or a western turned inside out. For a start the whole film centers around the power struggle between Joan Crawford's Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge's Emma. The men in the film only exist as part of the females stories. Now that's quite odd for a start. Back in the dark ages of the 50's women were homemakers, wives, mothers or sex symbols, very rarely would they be portrayed as anything else, especially in films, where they only really existed as a crutch for the male characters. Well that's all turned on it's head here, along with quite a bit else.

This isn't your gunslinging, set 'em up at the bar, head 'em off at the pass style western. No-sir-ree-Bob. Ray chooses to keep the majority of the action firmly out of the audiences view. The robbing of the stagecoach at the start of the film is shown from way up high, so that you can't really see what is going on. The same goes for the bank robbery in the middle of the film, we cut to two characters talking outside rather than stay with the action inside. The real action in this film comes via the friction between Vienna and those around her. Vienna is as feisty as any female character I can think of. She's saved from a hanging by Sterling Hayden (the Johnny of the title), but within five minutes has returned the favour by hiding them both in a silver mine.

Crawford is wonderful, she has the dramatic poise of a silent era star, for most of the film she is in the dead center of the frame. She also hardly gets any profile shots, almost all of her dialogue is spoken facing the audience. It's kind of weird, but this isn't a film that feels in any way steeped in realism. I don't really know enough about Ray nor feel that I've seen anywhere near enough of his work to be able to pick out themes and suchlike. There seems to be a love of outsiders and stubborn loners though, along with vivid splashes of colour. He's good at starting and ending films too, this one begins with a huge explosion and ends like all the other Ray films I've seen, rather ambiguously. He doesn't seem to deal in absolutes, and it feels as if his films continue long after the credits have rolled.

I was struck by the similarity between this film and Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The idea of a new town waiting for the arrival of the railroad so that it can spark into life, and the obvious strong leading lady. I'll probably have more to say after I've watched this for a second time, with a cup of coffee and a bit more of an idea of what awaits me.

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