"I've never seen a woman who was more like a man," a character observes of Vienna (Joan Crawford
), who has just opened a saloon that hasn't exactly endeared itself to the local townspeople. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), the local sexually repressed, lynch-happy harpy, is particularly displeased. Vienna is wooed both by the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and by Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a peripatetic tough guy-turned-troubadour with whom she has a past.
When the Kid's gang (which includes Ernest Borgnine) decides to knock over the bank before heading to California, Emma wants just about everyone in sight on the business end of a rope. Nicolas Ray's 1954 epic was considered one of the downright strangest Westerns of all time--the women were far tougher than the men (Johnny watches on laconically during the bank robbery, not bothering with heroics), and some saw in the film a bizarre allegory for the McCarthy Red scare. A half-century later, it's still a curious, intriguing piece of moral ambiguity from a time when such a thing ostensibly didn't exist. Hayden is an enigmatic presence, and Crawford's commanding star turn is what you'd expect. --David Kronke
United Kingdom released, PAL/Region 2 DVD: LANGUAGES: English ( Dolby Digital 2.0 ), English ( Subtitles ), SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, Interactive Menu, Scene Access, SYNOPSIS: One of the strangest westerns on record, Johnny Guitar has less in common with Zane Grey than it does with Sigmund Freud and Krafft-Ebbing. The title character, played by Sterling Hayden, is a guitar-strumming drifter who was once the lover of Arizona saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford). Though her establishment doesn't make a dime, Vienna doesn't care because the railroad is going to come in soon, bringing a whole slew of thirsty new customers. This puts her at odds with bulldyke rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who doesn't want any new settlers on her land. Hating Vienna with a purple passion, Emma will do anything to drive her out of the territory...and even worse, Emma's got the law and the other ranchers on her side. Hoping to keep Emma at bay, Vienna hires Johnny Guitar, who unbeknownst to everyone else in town is a notorious gunslinger. But Johnny prefers to bide his time, waiting for Emma to strike before he makes his move. As a result, Vienna endures several life-threatening experiences, culminating with a feverish chase through the Arizona wilds with lynch-happy Emma and her minions in hot pursuit. According to most sources, the animosity between Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge was quite real, added several extra dimensions to their scenes together. Director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan stuff the film with so much sexual symbolism that one wonders why they left out a train going into a tunnel. Ms. Crawford's vivid red-and-blue wardrobe scheme was later appropriated by Ray for James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause--with equally stunning results. In addition to the stars, Johnny Guitar is well stocked with reliable supporting players, including Ernest Borgn...Johnny Guitar