Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?
Having seen this film on DVD and a restored 35mm print, I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to experience the full effect of Ray’s vision is to watch it on the big screen. Either that or someone needs to release a better version of it on DVD since the current version that is out now simply does not do the film justice. Taking full advantage of CinemaScope with a tapestry of elaborate color schemes that seem almost irreverently crude, Ray is able to maximize the amount of space in the frame; his sets are cluttered and pervasively cumbersome. He has a tendency to shoot many scenes where a large group of people fill up the screen. The outdoor scenes are overly bright and expansive.
Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Nicholas Ray’s incendiary Western is one of domineering strength and unbridled determination. She is one of the rare female heroines of the genre that isn’t a harlot or controlled by male ascendancy. The swapping of gender-roles makes for a much more complex and introspective character study opposed to the standard archetypal characterizations adopted by the genre. It’s refreshing to finally come across a female protagonist in a Western with nerve and independence capable of making the rules. Taken at face value, it is an entertaining little Western that masquerades as cautionary tale towards industrialization laced with gunslingers, outlaws, bursts of violence and romance. This is only scratching the surface since what makes the film so fascinating is its evocative portrayal of femininity and its rebel spirit permeating just below the surface. More importantly, the film has a hidden political agenda and is actually a scathing assault on McCarthyism with particular emphasis on the importance of democracy. The local town authorities have become highly suspicious of a group of so-called “troublemakers” and are ruthless in pinpointing the blame on them for a supposed bank-car robbery.
Vienna owns a saloon, hoping to cash in when the railroad comes through. This is much to the disapproval of the local authorities led by a mean-spirited Sheriff and a malicious woman named Emma (Mercedes MacCambridge) who has a personal vendetta against Vienna that is far more complex than the film initially alludes to making for a fascinating character study of the two women. Vienna also happens to be friends with Dancing Kid and his posse who frequent her saloon. Since this group of individuals fails to conform to the established principles upheld by this community, it seems a safe bet according to the authorities to use them as a scapegoat. Enter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) who comes to town hired by Vienna to work in her saloon as a musician. What follows I dare not reveal only that Ray serves up plenty of melodrama as a way of accentuating the sexual politics on display. The title of the film is ironic in the sense that Johnny isn’t the main character of the film at all whose role is to merely highlight Vivian’s sexual control. The final showdown is unique in that it is between two dominant bad-ass women (Vienna vs. Emma) where the men are powerless to intervene – a true cinematic moment for feminists everywhere to rejoice in.