Let me just begin by saying that this is the campiest western I’ve seen so far. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) rushes into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) casino and accusing her of hiring the Dancing Kid for a stagecoach ambush that killed her brother. They throw empty threats about each other’s gunnery or gunship or whatever that will make Joan Collins pale in comparison. Emma throws remarks that eventually reveals her secret desire for the Dancing Kid and resentment of Vienna’s plans to introduce a train line to the insular town. McIvers (Ward Bond), who is in Emma’s team, instates a law to ban gambling and drinking outside town limits, crippling Vienna’s business. That’s just the first scene.
Then the Dancing Kid robs a bank because he thinks it’s a good idea.
This is the first time I notice the colour black in costume to pop out in a western. While Emma and her people wear the dusty browns of typical Western costume, Vienna wears black. She seems like the villain in this part of the film. She’s also more showy in her affluence, also wearing pants to show one of her employees’ endearing quips about being more manly and making him feel like less of one. The next day shows an inversion of that duality. Vienna has a few costume changes while the mob keeps wearing their mourning black and staining it while hunting for their usual suspects. Vienna’s a woman who has to transform herself because of her past, present and future, the mob keep on to old grudges and bring with them a wave of revenge and death.
After the bank robbery come the best scenes of the film, for my shallow and subjective reasons. Vienna lights the oil lamps of a chandelier, wearing a white dress that looks like she’s hosting a ball in Europe instead of closing shop in the West. Then one of the Dancing Kid’s collaborators, Turkey, totters into her saloon. Despite the hallowed Lightbox screening, I gasped loudly ‘No!’ Don’t ruin the dress.
Thank God. Vienna shows us a BAMF move, playing a piano peacefully despite of Emma’s shrill (sorry) accusations.
The lynch mob tries to finish off Vienna but she escapes. The red dust of the West doesn’t even touch the dress. My eyebrow is raising.
Vienna and the titular Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) escape to a mine shaft under the former’s now burnt down saloon. A little burning wooden beam falls down on Vienna’s dress. Finally.
Despite of how well some of her contemporaries have aged, it’s still strange to see Joan Crawford try and succeed to pull off something like that. But then it’s not like the film was trying to hide her age. As Vienna, she has a history, but she knows how to take care of herself.
I’ll make a last sartorial note about the film about the final showdown. Vienna and Johnny escape through a waterfall to the Dancing Kid’s lair. The Kid offers her dry clothes – Turkey’s. Vienna shoots Emma wearing Turkey’s yellow shirt, although she looks like she cans hoot a gun better than Turkey would. In a way, she helps him get a revenge he may have asked for.
Johnny Guitar is part of TIFF’s 100, a strange choice for the campy movie being championed by critics today. TIFF’s write-up of the film touched on the movie having the two strongest female characters in film history. I agree in a way that it took me four years and this movie to know that there’s a movie out there that has two women in opposing ends of gun mobs. And yes, the men in the film are as useful as the guns themselves, rarely opposing the women who lead them. They do subvert stereotypes of good and evil, virgin and whore. And of course, Vienna and Emma are better than many female characters today. But are these female characters only strong in comparison?
Johnny Guitar, directed by pot-stirrer Nicholas Ray with a supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine, is on again at the Lightbox on November 20th at 6PM.
“I thought the tradition of the old West was hospitality.” O hale no, Spencer Tracy.
Instead of hoodwinking us into making us feel comfortable about violent acts (“The Searchers”) or outright lying to us (“Avatar”), “Bad Day at Black Rock” keeps on message. It’s pretty much the 1955 equivalent of ‘We’re assholes, man’ without any sugar-coating. This movie also doesn’t have the annoying speeches that other politically inclined movies do. The characters are just doing and saying what’s necessary to survive against their enemy.
Mysterious John J. MacReedy (Tracy) goes to Black Rock and realizes that the attitude of some inhabitants is as dry as the desert. The town is just as mysterious as MacReedy, and it’s that mysterious element that allows oppression to occur. Both MacReedy and the man he’s looking for, Komoko, didn’t know what wa sin store for them when they went to Black Rock. When MacReedy asks Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) what happened to Komoko, Smith answers that the government shipped Komoko to a relocation camp, which couldn’t have been in the city. I’m not saying that small towns are racist. Instead it’s the population’s instinct to tuck horrific activities where no one can see them, and whoever’s the last in the exchange of hands would have to wash those horrors quietly.
Like the other movies in mentioned in this post, this movie doesn’t really paint any racial group with the same brush. Some white characters defend the oppressed minority as much as a handful of white ones oppress them. Smith could have relied on MacReedy to keep their secret if they had some unspoken bond. But no, MacReedy’s an outsider and could even have some authority beyond the small town of Black Rock, therefore the secret, as well as MacReedy, can’t possibly get out.
MacReedy finds out that Komoko, is dead. SPOILER, so is Komoko’s son, the man who saved MacReedy’s life. Apparently MacReedy should read as part Japanese – he kinds does look like Cotton Hill in this movie, after all, even if I don’t buy it. The film defending the Japanese is bittersweet in a way that it
doesn’t visually represent them and are not allowed to speak for themselves.
I also wanna say that this movie years ago was my introduction to the star-studded cast (Tracy, Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin). And I kinda have this thing about Lee Marvin, like what is wrong with me? This movie made us expect cowboys in plain clothes, and thankfully we got people who talk and think like cowboys. And who better to play cowboys than these four.