Once the stranger of the title has ridden into town, the first scene proper unfolds in the saloon. It’s 15 minutes of pure dialogue. And it’s one of the best written, performed and directed pieces of drama you’ll ever see.
Absolutely everything is set up in it. Good versus evil. The two rival gangs, and the abject hatred that their two leaders have for each other. The competing love interests, and the conflict that erupts as the townsfolk are faced with the arrival of the modern world in the form of the railroad.
But all of this is turned completely upside down by the fact that the two gang leaders are women!
Not only that, but the two actresses in question, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge visibly detested one another.
So everything we find in this quintessentially male landscape is gloriously undermined. And the Johnny Guitar of the title isn’t the hero at all. He’s just the hero’s love interest. Not only that, but he’s played by Sterling Hayden.
Hayden might have been a 6 foot 5 Nordic God. But he was also unavoidably threatening. He would later appear in Kubrick’s The Killing, as the mad general in Dr. Strangelove, the corrupt police Captain in The Godfather (who breaks Al Pacino’s jaw), and as the unhinged writer in Altman’s brilliant hymn to film noir, The Long Goodbye.
Not your conventional hero then. Indeed the whole landscape is peopled by similarly conflicted, gloriously Freudian archetypes.
So not only is this a genuinely great western, it also deconstructs all of the elements that a traditional western is made up of. Crucially though, this is done by Ray to heighten our emotional investment in the characters involved.
If for instance all Pirandello had done in Six Characters In Search Of An Author, was to deconstruct the formal elements of the play, instead of using this to accentuate our emotional involvement with his characters, then he wouldn’t have produced the seminal work that he did. Instead of Pirandello, all we’d have got would have been Stoppard. Clever, but vacuous.
So when John Travolta gets killed in the middle of Pulp Fiction, you smile and think How terribly clever. But when one of your lead characters gets killed, you’re not supposed to think anything. You’re supposed to feel devastated.
When Beckett, Pinter or Sarah Kane explored the formal constructs of drama, they did so to enhance the emotional heft of the works they produced.
Which is what Ray does here in Johnny Guitar. And that’s what makes it truly great. Not the formal games, but the emotional end that they serve.
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