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.