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4.5 out of 5 stars
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This totally bonkers western starts with a series of explosions in the dusty hills of Arizona, and ends with a cathartic gunfight and a clinch that is something of an anti-climax after so much overwrought, perverse craziness.
Not the least crazy is the casting, with Joan Crawford and the splendidly named Mercedes McCambridge {who hated each other} playing, respectively, domineering saloon owner Vienna, who has a lurid past, along with one or two lurid shirts, and the even more domineering, wild-eyed black-clad, aptly named Emma Small, not to mention the Dancin' Kid {Scott Brady, good}, an indecisive Marshall {Ward Bond}, a kid called Turkey {Ben Cooper, who looks about fourteen}, porcine Ernest Borgnine as an impatient, trigger-happy member of the Dancin' Kid's gang, and tall, blond, handsome Sterling Hayden excellent as the titular guitar-playing lone wolf hero ~ who, rare in films back then, looks like he is actually playing his instrument {even if he isn't}.
John Carradine and the great Royal Dano {always in support, but what support!} crop up in smaller roles too, as do western veteran Paul Fix and Welsh actor Rhys Williams. All do well in a movie that must have challenged their powers of belief-suspension as much as it does the viewer's.
The film had a troubled genesis, but it most definitely benefits from having the great Nicholas Ray in the director's chair, and a script that might be 50% sheer madness, but has a uniquely clipped poetry to it. Classily, you even get Peggy Lee singing the closing song.
The plot, such as it is, is flimsy and oblique, with plenty of symbolism ~ including an Edenic waterfall most of the cast pass through at least once ~ and best not investigated too intricately, not if you want to stay sane. The relationships between the characters are, at best, a moveable feast.
But this is still an insanely entertaining film {I'd advise watching it with the tipple of your choice to hand} with a cast you couldn't ~ hell, daren't ~ dream up if you tried. In fact, the least credible characters are the two female leads, though Crawford, who was a real trouper, remains watchable throughout, but McCambridge strains credibility to its limits. She looks like she's just been given a few whiskies and her own lines, and encouraged to give the maddest, most mannered performance she can. Or maybe she just read the script, had a good laugh, and thought, "To hell with this, I'm gonna give the most melodramatic reading of these crazy part as I can ~ and let someone dare stop me!"
Everyone should see this gaudy, oddly likeable western at least twice {you won't believe it first time around} and if, like me, you'd watch anything directed by Nick Ray, then it's mandatory viewing.
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It's all been said...hasn't it? The DVD Trucolour is good as is the sound, plus English Subtitles. Extras are an Intro by Martin Scorsese. I try and view it as a "Western with a difference" and leave the theorising to others. It is a crazy film, western or not, with Crawford at her scariest and oddest looking. Closely rivaled by McCambridge who really does scare you she is so ANGRY. What I like is the perhaps mysterious fact of the cast of truly great western character actors who all seem a bit out of place...Borgnine/Dano/Ben Cooper as Brady's gang. Bond, Frank Ferguson (very good), John Carradine, Ian McDonald, Sheb Wooley, Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Will Wright who between them must notch up 100's of westerns and seem out of kilter with the rest of the bizarre plot. I have to recomend this as "essential viewing" to anyone who loves cinema, and western fans will find much to enjoy. Wonder why Nicholas Ray took it on!!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 September 2014
I liked this atypical and deservedly famous 1954 western. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.

Somewhere in Arizona, in a little town whipped by winds, a tough aging saloonkeeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford, grandiose) struggles against the hostility of a local cattle baron John McIvers (Ward Bond), who doesn't appreciate her owning land and business in a place he considers as exclusive domain of himself and his cronies, like the owner of local bank. Even worse, the sister of the bank owner, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, impressive), a woman probably mentally unbalanced, hates Vienna passionately for reasons which actually are not fully explained - and quite probably not fully known or understood even by herself...

Part of the reason for this hatred can be the jealousy - Emma indeed is fascinated (and in the same time repulsed) by Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), a guy who may or may not be a desperado but who certainly is a dashing dandy. Dancing Kid however always ignored Emma, but intensely courted Vienna... And then, one fateful and eventful day a mysterious stranger rides in the town looking for Vienna - he introduces himself as Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden)... And then the film really begins.

Being essentially a confrontation between two very tough and not very nice gals, both of whom carry guns and know how to use them, this is, let's say it again, a very atypical western. The introduction of element of madness - not a very frequent thing in Wild West stories - gives to it a very special taste. The irrational hatred Emma Small feels for Vienna allows for some moments which are really, really scary, even chilling as we can see the evil at work at its most vicious. In this film the great motivator is not the money, not the conflict of interests, not revenge and in fact not even jealousy - all those things either don't exist or are just pretexts - but simply a relentless will to destroy another human beings just BECAUSE!

The film has also some elements of parody - I found irresistible the scene in which a mysterious, dangerous looking stranger arrives to a lawless town, carrying for the only weapon a guitar...))) There are many winks to the clichés of the genre, but all containing some parodic elements. On another hand there are also some pretty tough scenes - including a lynching...

Joan Crawford was 50 when she turned this film - and gosh was she still hot, both when wearing virginal white and hellishly bright red! Sterling Hayden is excelellent as a Wild West troubadour who has a very special relationship with firearms - he avoids to touch them as much as possible and for a good reason (but I am not saying here why...) Mercedes McCambridge played here probably the role of her life as a woman who seems to be possessed by the devil - and it is probably not an accident that much later she was chosen to give her voice to the demon Pazuzu in "The exorcist"...)))

Maybe because it has some irrationality, grotesque and parody in it many people consider it as a major masterpiece - it certainly seems to be particularly liked by French intellectuals. Me however, I am unable to rate it as high. Of course it is a good, interesting film and I enjoyed watching it - but I consider it rather as an interesting oddity, rather than a classic of the genre. Still, a recommended viewing. Enjoy!
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This 1954 Nicholas Ray western must be ranked as one of the very best on grounds of originality alone. As Martin Scorsese points out in his introduction on the DVD the film breaks all of the rules of the genre, emphasizing emotion and melodramatic excess over the usual classic (re Fordian) simplicity of the Wild West. Women replace men as the main protagonists and by giving everything a very artificial feel (use of color, especially the anarchic use of the colors red, white, black and the muting of blue) and resorting to operatic excess, Ray conjurs up a film of many layers of interpretation. These have been elucidated elsewhere by other reviewers. Whether you see it as feminist tract, Freudian psycho-investigation or McCarthy allegory, it all amounts to an engrossing, fascinating Western experience like no other. The film was a huge influence on Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West, with characters named after musical instruments, a story revolving around the building of a railroad community and by the use of operatic conventions. Where Ennio Morricone invokes Wagner with his use of leitmotifs, giving each character a different theme, Ray invokes Verdi and Puccini with the film's 'chorus' scenes (the first group encounter at "Vienna's" is long and especially reminiscent of the Verdi of say Simon Boccanegra) and intimate arias and duets between characters, the composer Victor Young's music sweeping the action along with tremendous subtlety and gushing drama when required. The acting is extraordinarily melodramatic, especially that of the two leading ladies. Joan Crawford looks to have stepped straight out of a silent film (I thought also of Gloria Swanson in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard) while Mercedes McCambridge plays an evil harridan as if she was Countess Eboli from Verdi's Don Carlos or the Wicked Witch of the West from Fleming's The Wizard of Oz - take your pick! Every scene barring the outside chase scenes feels like an operatic set-piece and it would be easy to criticise the film for being too over the top (I can readily understand American 1954 audiences laughing at the time). That is beside the point for me, for without the use of operatic excess and melodrama Ray would not have been able to create his fabulously original mythic landscape which prompts all those different sub-texts which have engrossed film experts (critics and directors alike) ever since it came out. Ray's treatment of the script is entirely tied to its content as is shown by the fact that his other westerns are treated so differently. As for the DVD itself, the quality is fine. The sharp picture and lush colors really stick out and excite the senses. Recommended to all lovers of westerns. Visconti enthusiasts would probably love it, too.
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on 9 April 2006
If Charlotte Bronte had written a Western, she might have turned out something like this lunatic wallow in repressed female sexuality. God knows what the original novel (by Ray Chanslor) is like, but the director lays on the Freudian imagery with a trowel: my favourite is Crawford's blood-red shirt into which she insanely changes while on the run from a lynch-mob. Of the men, only the squalid and asexual Ernest Borgnine has substance; the rest look bemused or mildly disgusted by proceedings. Mercedes McCambridge is a screeching harpy, a force of nature, mesmerising in her intensity. Crawford looks like she's come west as an escapee from the House of Usher. In her caked-on, clown-like make-up that defined her later period, she's a hideous and unforgettable matriarch.

The DVD transfer is superb. There's an enthusiatic introduction by Martin Scorsese, but no other extras. A full-blown psycho-analytic reading as a commentary might have been fun.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 November 2010
Johnny Guitar is out of Republic Pictures and is directed by Nicholas Ray. It's written by Phillip Yordan, who adapts from a novel written by Roy Chanslor, and it stars Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine & Scott Brady.Victor Young scores the music, with the theme tune sung by Peggy Lee, and Harry Stradling Senior photographs in Trucolor.

On the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town is a saloon run by the strong willed Vienna (Crawford). It's not a busy place, and the users of it tend to be more of the rough kind, notably The Dancing Kid (Brady) and his gang. At the request of Vienna, her former lover Johnny Guitar (Hayden) arrives for his employment as the musical entertainment. But he walks into a war, a war between Vienna and the townsfolk led by the vicious and vindictive Emma Small (McCambridge).

Johnny Guitar has been called many things. From the deep thinkers who like to call it a feminist statement, an anti McCarthyism allegory and a piece smouldering with sexual repressions and yearnings: to the detractors calling it rubbish, campy and acted so badly that it actually smells of bacon cooking in the kitchen. What is immediately evident about it is that once viewed it's unlikely to be forgotten: which ever side of the fence you sit. It was a troubled production that saw both Hayden & McCambridge declare dislike for Crawford, with Crawford reciprocating the dislike for McCambridge by insisting that her character of Vienna be given more meat from which to further dominate the film. Fans of the film will forever be grateful for Crawford's jealousy, for she got her way, this was after all a vehicle for her, if she had walked, as was threatened, it would have died a death. The shift in emphasis, with the subversion of gender roles, is what makes Johnny Guitar the most intriguing and unusual film that it is.

Upon release in America the film was very coolly received, but out in Europe, notably France, the New Wave directors were very impressed and the film has gained a cult status over the years. So much so that nowadays it gets name checked by such luminaries like Martin Scorsese, who eagerly provides an introduction on the DVD for it. What is it that the fans see that makes it such a favourite? Moving away from the fabulous narrative, where two women are the main characters in a perceived mans world; where the psychoanalytic drama seeps from every frame. It's a technical hotpot as Ray moulds his twisted sexual dynamics together. Trucolor has never looked this nice before, nor ever been so apt. it's almost surreal, certainly lurid, and it neatly brings to the fore the Frank Lloyd Wright-like sets. While the Sedona photography by Stradling, particularly the red and browns of the landscape, is simply beautiful. Cover it all with a hauntingly evocative score from Young and it's one of Republic's most pleasing Western productions.

The cast came in for some grief from the critics, with the main charge being of hamming it up. Not so say I, well certainly not to the detriment of the feverish story. Crawford acquits herself well, black eyes, blood red lips and masculine jaw, Crawford nails the task of butch land owner aching for love from within. As her nemesis, McCambridge steals the movie, Crawford was right to feel jealous, such is the intensity that McCambridge puts into Emma. A vicious psychotic harpy, sexually frustrated, watch the orgasmic glee she shows during one particularly vengeful scene. A brilliant and frightening performance. Hayden does what he does best, slinks around and plays it almost close to parody, but never once does he come close to being disparaging, his charisma is massive and he acts it like a coiled spring waiting to unfurl. While Bond (puritanical), Brady (edgy) and Borgnine (feral), the three B's, are very efficient in important supporting roles. Special mention for John Carradine, who plays a background character that, thanks to the prolific actor, manages to get noticed and pangs the heart during the finale. A fine cast that plays it right in this cobweb of Freudian splinters.

Save for some tacky back screen work and the odd incredulous character choice: it's observed that Vienna's white dress will draw attraction to them on the lam; then she selects a bright red shirt!, this is near genius. To my mind it's one of the true greats of the Western genre, so count me in as a paid up member for the cult of Johnny Guitar. 9/10
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Nicholas Ray was a mercurial and brilliant director. He was bisexual and had affairs with such stars as Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford, the star of this film. He was a heavy drinker, a gambler and a drug addict. In short he lived that hedonistic lifestyle so beloved of many Hollywood luminaries. Joan Crawford had a well documented film career. She was notorious for her many lovers and if you believed half of the biography "Mommie Dearest", she was a cruel, abusing, alcoholic Mother to her adopted children. Mercedes McCambridge led a tragic life. She also suffered from alcoholism and her only son tragically shot himself after murdering his wife and children. Sterling Hayden was a colourful character who sailed around the world several times in between acting. His career was blighted due to his activities during the McCarthy years.
So what sort of film would you get if you mixed this powder keg of characters together in a Western. Something volatile? Something unusual? You betcha!

"Johnny Guitar" made in 1954, and not 1963 as advertised is all of those things and more. The story concerns a saloon owner Vienna played by the wide eyed Crawford, who supports the building of a railway and allows a local outlaw "the Dancin Kid" and his gang the use of her facilities. All of which are angrily opposed by the local population. An old lover "Johnny Guitar" an ex gunslinger, who now only carries his guitar returns to try and reignite the romance. The fuse is lit when the gang rob a bank and the locals feel Vienna is implicated. A posse led by Emma Small a local rancher played by McCambridge hunt the gang to their lair.
Emma has always harboured a deep and festering hatred of Vienna. We head towards one of the most unusual gunfights in history between the two female protaganists.

This has to be the strangest and perhaps one of the better Westerns ever made. It was a rare foray into the Western genre for Ray. Unusually the two main protaganists are women and they are more than a match for the men. Nothing unusual in that assertion I guess! Mercedes McCambridge positively oozes jealousy and hate from every pore. Crawford gives a magnificently detached performance as the world weary Vienna. Johnny Guitar mocks the archetypal Western hero with his pacifism. Colour is used to startling effect. The support cast is quite brilliant with Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond and John Carradine amongst many.

The film is an outlandish off beat gem that throws away the rule book. In 2008 it was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". It is a film well worthy of this accolade. Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 18 April 2006
Certainly one of the most unusual westerns ever made, "Johnny Guitar" is a fascinating and mesmerizing film. Women take the central role, while men play second fiddle to them. It has a unique atmosphere of garish, fake colours and location settings. It is surely one of those films no one should ever miss. Brilliantly acted by Joan Crawford (my favourite performance of hers) and Mercedes McCambridge, playing respectively a saloon owner with an eye in the future and her fierce opponent.

The DVD looks gorgeous, with the film's fantastic range of colours highlighted by the print. As for extras there's only an introduction to the film by Martin Scorcese. It would be nice if there was something meatier. I strongly recommend it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 January 2013
Of course, one of the most distinctive things about this 1954 Nick Ray western (which is itself the subject of something of an obsession with French New Wave directors) is that it features two strong-willed leading women in Joan Crawford's Vienna, the entrepreneur(ess) whose ambition it is to make her fortune in the saloon bar/casino she has established along the route of the developing railroad, and Mercedes McCambridge's Emma Small, Vienna's bitter rival in both love and business. Indeed, in the film's climactic female duel between the said rivals, Johnny Guitar may well represent a 'western first' (answers on a postcard please).

In addition to Crawford's increasingly impressive performance (for me, she displays a steady improvement during the film's course), the other star of the piece is Sterling Hayden's gunfighter turned musician, Johnny 'Guitar' Logan, Vienna's initially languid but increasingly excitable hireling ('You are gun crazy'), and with whom she has history. It soon becomes clear that another Vienna ex, The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) - whose duet with Johnny's guitar provides a good deal of ham in one of the film's early scenes - and his crew, are suspected by Ward Bond's local Mr Big, John McIvers (and backed up by Emma) of a recent stage hold-up and (along with Vienna and Johnny) are given 24 hours to leave town, thereby giving rise to an extended posse chase sequence (as, for good measure, The Kid's crew have robbed the local bank to fund their travels).

After a slow and moody start, Ray's film picks up the pace nicely, with Harry Stradling's cinematography impressive, whether it be portraying the vast Arizona backdrop or the intimate saloon bar interiors, and Victor Young's score providing a mix of stirring and haunting, particularly during the extended scenes between Crawford and Hayden. By the end, Crawford's role has just about worked, impressive as she is in her bright yellows and reds, albeit one's disbelief is rather stretched that she should be such a romantic obsession for both Johnny (Hayden being 10 years her junior) and (even more so) The Kid (Brady being young enough to be her son, at 18 years her junior). In addition, there are sterling performances from Ernest Borgnine, at his belligerent best as Bart Lonergan and from John Carradine as the well-meaning, softly spoken Old Tom.

A film which certainly takes a slightly different slant on the traditional western and is well worth seeing for this reason.
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on 24 September 2012
Crawford by her own admission hated this film. Probably not as much as she hated "Trog" or "Reunion in France" but she hated it. Still, if you love Crawford films like I do, you will want this in your collection. Not only does it feature Joan as she started to look more masculine in her career (ie. severe haircut, bushy eyebrows), but the storyline is SO BAD it is good ... if you know what I mean. The DVD is budget priced, so grab it if you can. Add it to your Crawford library and admire how bad films got the green light back in the day.
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