To say that Johnny Guitar is simply a Western is to ignore its quite substantial and not overly implicit meaning. Indeed much of what is going on in Nicholas Ray's film is happening underneath its shallow—and by this, I don't mean banal—surface. But to read Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of May 28, 1954, one would expect this film to be just another horse opera, and a rather weak one at that.
...Joan Crawford plays essentially the role that Van Heflin played in Shane...The only big difference in the character, as plainly rewritten for her, is that now it falls in love with the ex-gunfighter, whom Sterling Hayden here plays.Ouch, I think I cut myself with one of Crowther's metaphorical shavers.
But this condescension to Miss Crawford and her technically recognized sex does nothing more for the picture than give it some academic aspects of romance. No more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in Shane. For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades.
True, on the surface this looks like your typical western about a saloon owner—Crawford's Vienna—refusing to sell her establishment as she holds out for the imminent arrival of the railroad from which she hopes to get a considerable offer for her land. Mercedes McCambridge plays Emma, a greedy cattle empress in repressed love with the crooked Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), whose jealousy over Vienna being the recipient of his affections fuels her desire to destroy her, the saloon, and the railroad's plans for the area. Even the competition between the Kid and Hayden's titular hero—née Johnny Logan, a once famous gunfighter and Vienna's ex-lover—plays second fiddle to the more clearly defined rivalry between the two formidable women. If there is a twist to the humdrum plot, even Crowther acknowledges it is simply one involving gender role reversal, with Crawford and McCambridge getting the lion's share of the screen time and power to move the narrative with the hapless Johnny and his adversary the Kid doing much more of the reacting.
So why then does Crowther, often critical of the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee and the effect it had on Hollywood, miss the more significant subversive machinations of Ray's western? Forget the more covert elements in a film where the colorfully attired "bad" guys like the left-handed Kid and his crew represent the alleged communists against the more sedately dressed, conformist mob led by Ward Bond (an avowed conservative in real life) and McCambridge. As Danny Peary takes pains to catalogue in his Guide for the Film Fanatic,
Every character represents a political faction ...Vienna is a fellow traveler, progressive, who is pushed to side with the "communists"—in an underground passage she puts on a red shirt; Emma is presented as a witch (dressed in black), the head of the witch-hunt, who uses fear and power to destroy the careers of rivals. Since Vienna, who has been in the area five years, is a "foreigner" (notice her name), she is an easy target. Appealing to the cattlemen's warped Americanism, Emma implies Vienna wants the railroad because it will destroy their way of life.In the film's most explicit parallel, the furious Emma, having whipped her posse into a frenzied lynch mob, pushes a captive follower of the Kid's to falsely give Vienna up as an accomplice in much the same way people called before HUAC were ordered to "name names." The eponymous Johnny Guitar, now strictly a musician (or entertainer, wink-wink), is an erstwhile outlaw (read: Communist) back to help his ex-flame. It's no coincidence then, that Ray cast actor Hayden in the role. An entertainer with ties to the Communist Party, Hayden was intimidated into testifying against former associates in front of HUAC to preserve his career, an act he had already begun to regret as cowardly.
Crowther is caught flatfooted in his easy dismissal of the film. The selection of Hayden, the leftist Ray, and screenwriter Philip Yordan—who often fronted for blacklisted writers according to J. Hoberman (some claim he may have done so here for Ben Maddow)—all contribute to the idea of Johnny Guitar as subversive commentary on the Red Scare then stifling Hollywood's creative community. Unfortunately, Ray would disdain the picture after its release because Crawford hijacked it to make a "woman's picture" focused on herself. Still, Johnny Guitar—his second color film—is a key work in Ray's career, only ostensibly (just) a Western, boldly asserting the director's mastery over the image, its composition, and its portentous use of color to tell a story roiling with allegorical affinities just beneath its bizarre surface.
This is a revised version of a review first published at Decisions at Sundown on March 21, 2010.