Neo-Western Before Neo-Westerns Were Cool: Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

Every so often I finally get around to viewing a Nicholas Ray film and so far I have been well rewarded every time. Some are better than others, and in this case his 1954 cult western classic Johnny Guitar might be his best, or at least one of them. What aids this picture is that Ray takes cliches and works around them while also embracing many of them at the same time. He even manages to create some new ones, and works in a romantic subplot that is more of a square than a triangle. Even though one member of it refuses to admit that she hungers for a man she openly loathes.

Naturally Johnny Guitar has those picturesque views of the old west. Yet the costume design and additional use of color rounds out things very nicely. I could look at this movie all day, and whatever transfer Hulu featured looked great. Guitar, Vienna, Dancin’ Kid and his bunch are all dressed up in bright, vivid colors, while Emma, Vienna’s rival, and the townspeople she manipulates are dressed in either dull or black clothes. Even though they are supposed to represent law and order in contrast to Vienna and company, if you looked only at what people were wearing in this movie you would easily peg Emma as the villain. Which incidentally she is in this movie.

In fact the Vienna-Johnny-Dancin’-Emma love affair mess probably contributed the most trouble in this movie than anything else. I got the HUAC Committee parallels however I felt that the theme of suspicion without cause is one that fits in well in any era. Oh and the angry mob descending on Vienna’s home later in the film, stirred up by Emma, remains haunting and anger inducing to this day. Guilt assumed before innocence and by association is an all too common aspect of history that people tend to sweep under the rug. Best to just assert they “Deserved it” instead.

Having made film noirs before and after Ray could not help including those aspects in his western. It is really a marvel that this movie exists. There is no gun fight duel in the street, no stirring speeches or wrongs particularly righted. Yes some justice happens despite the circumstances, yet it comes too late to be truly satisfying. Unlike some of the films from it’s era and genre Johnny Guitar stands apart, confusing some of it’s intended audience while inspiring some like myself. Too bad Ray was so far ahead of his time, a decade or so early to a brand of western that is mostly what the genre is today.

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