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The Elemental Pleasures of Johnny Guitar

Joan Crawford in JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) | artwork by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella
Saloon proprietor Vienna (Joan Crawford) stands a head below two strapping men, each yearning to possess her. Archly addressing one, she stokes fires under both. Play something for me, Mister Guitar. “Anything special?” Just put a lot of love in it, she answers. Struck by the heady intimacy of their banter but utterly in the dark as to its origin, rival ex-boyfriend the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) radiates wait-just-a-minute indignation. Johnny, our titular bard, strums something poisonous—a “sad tune,” according to closed captioning. Isolated in closeup, Vienna’s pleasure snags; her eyes slide away, her lips flatten and split in an expression of pain reserved for recognition. We see how the thrill of yielding to nostalgia leaves you open to other, unplanned-for emotional commutes: to past disappointment, abandonment, betrayal. Longing changes register like color returns to a bruise.

In seconds, the passage from flirtation to agony transforms Crawford’s face, the shift explicit but silent, unbearable but objectively quick, and private, insofar as it plays to camera while Vienna has her back to both men. She wheels around to break the spell—Play something else!—but the conjurations of Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Western are unrelenting.

Like other films both difficult (at least to classify) and beloved, Johnny Guitar consolidates a rather narrow critical lexicon. For decades, Ray’s film has been alternatively praised and disparaged for settings, performances, even instances of color deemed “hallucinatory,” “feverish,” and “baroque.” The more writers fixate on what makes the film unusual, the more an emergent stock language risks domesticating its enigmatic details. How strange can an object be if so many agree on the angle of its obliquity? What manner of description might preserve that strangeness in conveyance? How can we remark on the radical intensity Mercedes McCambridge brings to antagonist Emma Small without calling her “fiery?” Or characterize Trucolor’s elaboration of Crawford’s features without citing her “slash” of a mouth?

Paul Willemen and others have defined the cinephilic moment as occurring alongside or perhaps under a movie’s deliberate, strategic narrative—while filmmakers compose from shots, scenes, and sequences, it’s spectators who subjectively determine the dimensions and resonance of moments in which “what is being seen is in excess of what is being shown.” The throes of cinephilia are thus thought to be a personal experience, but the overwhelming repetitiveness of language surrounding Johnny Guitar suggests that what’s memorable—and, in many cases, enchanting—about the film is uniquely fundamental to it. Johnny Guitar is so rigorously, comprehensively excessive, its excesses eclipse any baseline against which excess is typically judged. The film’s opening explosion, an unsolved murder, a streaky sunset in broad daylight, a hilltop lair behind a waterfall, all the combustion and coincidence and triangulation and need: this isn’t a movie “punctured” by instants of eruption, it is eruption—elemental, constitutive. Red earth, high wind, and fire.

There’s a strange, delicious contradiction in João Bénard da Costa’s essay (translated by Moira Difelice) chronicling his enduring affection for Johnny Guitar. Having seen the movie some 60-odd times, he rejects the notion that loving the film necessarily results in calcification: “Can you know it by heart? You never know Johnny Guitar by heart. Each time is a new time.” Later, Bénard da Costa shores up the film’s changeability and resistance to explication with an antithetical take on the same idiom: “Just as with very big things, you do not explain Johnny Guitar. You tell it (see it) again, again and again, like stories are told to children, until everything is known by heart and you learn that everything in them is right.” You never know it by heart; you see it until everything is known by heart—only by holding the two premises together do we verge on what Bénard da Costa finds so distinctive.

In 1933’s Queen Christina, Greta Garbo gets up in the midst of a snowed-in fuck bender and studiously walks the room: tracing her hands over objects on the mantle, giving the loom an experimental spin, and pressing her face against a pillow. This goes on a languid three minutes before her lover—here, our surrogate—asks what she’s doing. “I have been memorizing this room,” she purrs. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.” Achingly romantic, the scene also activates the polyvalence of “knowing by heart:” on the one hand, the reduction of something as unwieldy as experience to portable dimensions; on the other, the use of emotion as a primary perceptual appendage. Christina may observe the room optically, and examine its contents manually, but in doing so she learns by (and commits to) “heart” that which can’t endure elsewhere.

This tension between memory and memorization is all too relevant to Johnny Guitar, which at every level radiates anxiety about change—its possibility or inevitability, the casualties of time’s passage and the futility of standing still. Blowing into town moments before a literal windstorm, Johnny (Guitar, né Logan) is the Western’s false stranger, ostensibly new to town but burdened by unfinished business. Neither here nor anywhere are things as they seem. Vienna appears to have hired Johnny all the way from Albuquerque to entertain her clientele, but the saloon’s only traffic consists of rival gangs: the town posse, run by Emma and fellow preeminent landowner John McIvers (Ward Bond), and the criminals they’re hunting, led by the Dancin’ Kid.

Emma blames the Kid—and by extension, his sometime consort Vienna—for her brother’s death, which apparently resulted from the film’s initial, little-seen stagecoach holdup. Meanwhile, Vienna’s plan to build her business in the path of the pending railroad threatens McIvers’ dominion over town. So McIvers wants Vienna gone and development halted; Emma wants the Kid and especially Vienna dead, to avenge her brother, ballast the moral universe, and purge her repressed fixation on one or both of them; Johnny wants to become a wholly different person without anything between he and Vienna having changed; the Kid wants Vienna for himself, or to pretend as though Johnny’s arrival is the only thing keeping them apart; and Vienna, caught as she is in the matrices of everyone else’s desire, wants to be left alone—to keep the autonomy she has and secure the prosperity she’s long envisaged (quite literally, in the form of an elaborate 3D rendering that positions Vienna’s business at the new heart of town).

All this wanting notwithstanding, Johnny Guitar isn’t simply a melodrama masquerading as a western. As Robert Pippin points out, much of its high stakes sensationalism springs from the film’s attitudes toward time—from fear of an uncertain future to regret regarding an inauspicious past—which converge in the figure of the railroad: the oncoming train whose promises of material and symbolic transit create “a situation both of anxiety and opportunity” for those territories facing connection.

Vienna and Johnny not only occupy but also embody this fraught terrain. By the time Ray Chanslor’s novel is adapted on-screen, Crawford is no stranger to professional or personal second acts. 1937’s “Queen of the Movies” turned “Box Office Poison” by 1938, the former Lucille LeSueur had endured 50 years and three marriages, with the fourth and final union looming just a year ahead. Though François Truffaut famously called Johnny Guitar the “Beauty and the Beast of Westerns,” Crawford’s appearance wasn’t the belle he had in mind: “Crawford used to be one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood,” he writes. “Now she is beyond considerations of beauty. She has become unreal, a phantom of herself.”

If there’s anything otherworldly about Crawford’s performance, it’s her preternatural sense of control. Vienna’s physicality is wont to stillness and breadth; we first see her in trousers and a stark ribbon tie, presiding from the saloon’s upstairs loft, her feet set wide and fingers wrapping the rail. Even when she pulls her pistol on Emma in warning, her posture is as faultless as her voice is even: if I don’t kill you first. Throughout Johnny Guitar, men size each other up in bouts of tense silence; they press, rile, and get carried away. Vienna may lack Emma’s rabid glee, but her intensity is no less acute (and, for Emma, that much more maddening) for remaining relatively contained, or refined.

Significantly, that containment is Crawford’s performance of Vienna’s performativity. She effects a poise we understand as functionally self-protective, no doubt developed in stride with every “board, plank, and beam” of the building—or with the indignities sustained to finance its construction. It’s fitting that we hear her candid narration of this very process in what’s become the film’s most iconic scene, one of revelatory late-night conversation between Johnny and Vienna. It’s a moment out of time with its own mise-en-scène, choreographed to evoke a dream whose effects are inexplicably disproportionate to its elements.

Hours after going to bed, Vienna reappears in a fuchsia nightgown and sanguine velvet cape. She finds Johnny drinking in the kitchen and, delivering one of cinema’s greatest pauses, charges “dreams…bad dreams” with her restlessness. Emboldened by the hour, the darkness, or the bottle, Johnny lets himself ask, “How many men have you forgotten?” Vienna enters through the swing door as she answers, “As many women as you’ve remembered.” Like the opening exchange, their subsequent dialogue is part tipsy Beckettesque improvisation, part revelation via roleplay. Johnny asks Vienna to lie to him, to feed him back a series of lines he supplies piecemeal: “All these years I’ve waited.” “I would have died if you hadn’t come back.” “I still love you like you love me.”

Because the shot-reverse shot pattern isn’t synchronized to their speech, we alternate between seeing him listen and watching her speak, and it’s unclear which is more painful: the flash and withdrawal of Johnny’s susceptibility, or Vienna’s blazing concentration on getting the words out. No light source in the saloon’s enclosed kitchen can justify the selective illumination of her face and décolletage—and nothing can prepare us for the barometric shift of Vienna’s turn to camera as she tells Johnny the truth about the last five years: I searched for you in every man I met.

In the new Johnny, Vienna’s search continues. Even as she realigns herself with him, Vienna studies Johnny for signs of the old volatility. To forgive each other, the lovers must prove they’ve changed—but to change, they require the benediction of each other’s forgiveness. This is the dilemma awaiting them on the other side of mere survival, the “problem” to which Vienna refers in a calm before the culminating shoot-out: “We’ve both done a lot of living. Our problem now is how to do a little more.”

Everyone who defends Vienna ends up dead. Kindly workers Tom and Corey; young Turkey, conned into falsely incriminating her to save himself and killed regardless; and even the Kid, whose corpse is elegized in a shot so beautiful, so needlessly symmetrical, it made me gasp on first viewing. The splayed lower half of Kid’s body is pinned to the bottom of the frame. Between his legs, a black hat sits upright. We’re reminded of how, earlier, the camera wandered from the posse’s deliberations to follow Emma’s mourning veil as it blew from her head and wafted back to earth. In the background, the black-clad posse forms a gallery: rifles slack, expressions remote. Bisecting and centering the Kid’s fallen form, the shot is both indifferent to and fixated on its subject. And after the camera’s moved on and Peggy Lee’s rendition of the title song seeps through, and Johnny and Vienna emerge grinning through the falls for a kiss we can’t quite see, this image—that of a true ending, from which nothing can be recovered—persists, insisting on the distance between wanting things to be different, and wishing they had been. It’s the ending I know by heart.