• Johnny Guitar

    Released by: Olive Signature
    Released on: September 20th, 2016.
    Director: Nicholas Ray
    Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond
    Year: 1954
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    The Movie:

    Revisionist. Feminist. Gloriously strange. At turns deeply unsettling yet always gorgeous to look at. No wonder the French critics went wild for 1954's JOHNNY GUITAR when it was released.

    Nicholas Ray was a director of unique talent and vision, and while his go-to film will always be REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE for most when asked to give an an example of his artistic gifts, there's a pretty good case to be made for this decidedly unique Western.

    Made by the biggest independent studio of its day - Republic Pictures - the film was the product of an odd deal between star Joan Crawford and the suits at the company. She had bought the rights to the source novel and sold it to Republic with the proviso that she star. Female centric Westerns weren't exactly thick on the ground (Raquel Welch's HANNIE CAULDER was over 15 years away) at that time to say the least. And though the glamorous star was certainly in full control freak mode during filming in regards to her closeups and overall physical appearance in the film, the character has some decidedly masculine traits...

    Vienna's Saloon, somewhere in a desolate stretch of barren Arizona desert. Named after its proprietor (Joan Crawford), it is a gorgeous and spacious gambling house missing one crucial element - customers. But there's a catch that keeps this white elephant in business. Two actually. The first is that Vienna owns the land that it sits on. And the second is that a railroad is being built that will turn this no mans land into a bustling boomtown for anyone who can provide the booze and the broads. The only problem is that most of the town hates Vienna. The ruling class are essentially a crime family who control the law, the area's natural resources and the local finances. Further complicating matters is that their has been a recent stagecoach robbery and murder. The victim? The brother (and probable romantic interest of Vienna) of area resident Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) - a woman with a deep and abiding hatred of Vienna. The other crucial players in this saga are the town's criminal gang, headed by a character known as The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and the cat who this film is named after - "retired" ace gunfighter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who's just ridden into town to renew his acquaintance with the lost love of his life. Is

    Described by one character as someone who "acts like a man", JOHNNY GUITAR's female protagonist cuts an unforgettable figure. As she aged, Crawford became an increasingly intimidating presence and seeing her dressed n black and quite authoritatively brandishing a six-gun is simultaneously thrilling and startling. Crawford is romantically pursued by both gang leader Dancin' Kid and Johnny but doesn't seem all that eager for a man's affections initially. She's got business on her mind. Getting the locals who have accused her of being complicit in the stagecoach robbery/murder off her back for one thing. And trying to close railroad related deals for another.

    A lot has been made of JOHNNY GUITAR's anti-McCarthyism laced subtext and it is definitely there. Vienna is ruthlessly pursued by an overheated mob led by the increasingly strident Emma, who is both a feminist AND sexist creation. Emma is a harpy. She is loud and obnoxious with a propensity for emasculation when challenged by a man, but she's also ballsy and in command - much like her sworn enemy Vienna. She has no interest in feminine wiles or soft underhanded manipulation. It's blunt force trauma all the way and if she can't bend you to her will, she'll happily do the shooting herself. When a naive young gang member begs for mercy after being captured, Emma will do anything necessary to get him to say what she wants and then betray him with no qualms.

    The men in JOHNNY GUITAR are no match for the women. Hayden's character would prefer to make a run for it if possible and can't even be bothered to intervene early on in the film when he observes the robbery going down from a high ridge. The Marshal (Frank Ferguson) is an amazingly spineless individual who does things like sign off on a lynching when he knows it's wrong to save his community standing. Stronger male characters like Ernest Borgnine's nasty gang member Bart may be tougher but their overweening stupidity cancels out those traits.

    The heart of JOHNNY GUITAR is its two catfighting superstars. Crawford and McCambridge go at each other with a vengeance so intense some dirty-minded individuals have likened it to a lesbian relationship gone viciously sour. The fact that the two stars loathed each other in real life comes through loud and clear onscreen. As good as Hayden is in the film, by the time these Vienna and Emma square off, he's become almost superfluous.


    Remember Olive? Those guys who thought an "extra" was a ratty standard def trailer that looked like it got lifted off your brother's shitty VHS collection? The no muss, no fuss just give it a quick scan and dump it onto Blu dudes?

    Meet the new flesh brothers and sisters. This is a GORGEOUS transfer. Colors pop. Landscapes dazzle. Skin tones and black levels are lovely. This 1.66.1 framed 1080p AVC encoded presentation is undoubtably the best this film has ever looked. The cinematography was always a stunner and this Blu ray does it justice. The print is also in very good shape so there are no distracting cuts or marks to see. And film grain looks natural and well-resolved.

    Audio is covered by a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono mix that is period authentic without sounding weak. For an older audio track, this is on the higher quality end. Everything sounds pretty full and robust and there are zero audible anomalies. Levels are solid and all dialogue is clear.

    The audio commentary - by critic Geoff Andrew - is occasionally dry but packed with info. Andrew is a Ray scholar and clearly knows his stuff. The financial dealings that got this project off the ground, Crawford's mercurial temperament, Ray's body of work - it is all throughly discussed.

    "The blacklist history of Johnny Guitar" featurette is pretty self-explanatory and sees film historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein address the McCarthyism aspects of the film. This is a very interesting historical piece. My personal favorite of the featurettes is next: "Is Johnny Guitar A Feminist Western?" sees critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich dig pretty deeply into the film's most unusual aspect. The Western was a uniquely male genre unlike suspense or even horror films, and the panel helps put all this film's feminist subtext into historical context. Following on from this extra we have "Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other" which sees the same group of analysts tackle the larger issue of how JOHNNY GUITAR fits into the traditional Western canon as an odd duck. "Free Republic: The Story Of Herb Yates And Republic Studios" is just what it says though it's a pretty surface look at the studio and Yates at only six minutes however. "My Friend, the American Friend" is focused more narrowly on director Ray and this is a nicely informative piece. Host Tom Farrell has a solid grasp on Ray's work and clear respect. Jonathan Rosenbaum's visual essay "Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western" may strike some as a bit pretentious, what makes a reasonable enough case for the film as a work of existentialism. The three minute Martin Scorcese film introduction is the only holdover here from Olive's original almost barebones Blu. This appears to be from a tape source but the famous director's enthusiasm is contagious enough to overlook that minor niggle. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.

    The Final Word:

    A truly unique and wonderful film, it's impossible not to give JOHNNY GUITAR the highest possible recommendation. Crawford and McCambridge give outstanding performances and Olive's offering is a top flight affair from its superb transfer and audio down to the copious and excellent extras all the way to the spiffy slipcased packaging and booklet with informative liner notes. This is Criterion level stuff folks. Buy with confidence.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!