BADass SINema Unearthed - Blu-ray Review
- Published Date
- by Loron Hays
Joan Crawford. Her name alone invokes images of all sorts. F. Scott Fitzgerald considered her THE ORIGINAL flapper. She was a dancer, a radio talent, an actress, but, above everything else, she was a force of nature. She alone made herself a star. No one else. And it happened when she wanted it to happen. She was not rushed, nor was it forced upon her. She wanted it. Along with the fame and fortune came the power and the influence. And when the parts got smaller as she got older, she made a name for herself once again by branching out into horror with Strait-Jacket and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
Before all that, though, there was one of the strangest westerns ever made: Johnny Guitar. For Crawford, it was a labor of love that spoke to her passions as a headstrong woman in the entertainment business. She secured the rights to Johnny Guitar before the novel was even published. That’s how badly she wanted to turn the story into a movie.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, this Republic film is atypical of the western genre in that (a) a woman is at the center of this male-dominated genre, and (b) the whole production operates as a thinly veiled metaphor for the Hollywood “witch hunt” that blacklisted a whole lot of its heroes thanks to the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). Needless to say, the film was completely disregarded when it was originally released. Critics scoffed at Crawford’s attempts to slip into a pair of cowboy boots. Some couldn’t get over her hair. Others felt the movie was too aware of itself and shamed it. Regardless of the review, the public did not turn out for it.
Which makes Olive Signature’s handling of Johnny Guitar all the more special. In its heart of hearts, Johnny Guitar is the best example of what B-movies looked like in the early 1950s. There’s little chance Crawford could have pulled off this stylized western had it been budgeted with the funds of a normal western. Instead, she and Ray are free to imagine the western as a feminist statement with surreal moments of melancholy sexual frustration. Freud himself would be proud.
As adapted by Philip Yordan, Johnny Guitar is the story of Arizona saloon-owner Vienna (Crawford) and her attempt to secure a spot in the territory before the train comes through, making her a very rich woman with a lot more thirsty visitors. Unfortunately, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and other locals in the town don’t want to share their land with the strangers the train will bring. Enter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). Brought in to keep Emma and the locals from halting her progress, it is Johnny’s job to entertain and, possibly, defend, as he is quite handy with the gun.
Things escalate quickly, a sexual relationship is revealed, and tempers flare before bodies start piling up. There’s a rousing chase sequence through the wild terrain of Arizona as Emma whips up a pretty impressive lynch mob and they go on a mission to seek and destroy all things connected with Vienna. As far as movies go, Johnny Guitar is as forward-thinking as it is hallucinogenic. It’s firmly planted in the mythological Old West of Hollywood’s creation, yet it somehow exists out of time itself. It’s tense and tough and poetic – with stunning colors – in its attempts to bring women out of the shadows.
Unfortunately, it is a movie also marred with a lot of drama. It seems the tension between McCambridge and Crawford wasn’t just limited to the script. The two were quick to disagree with each other and often vocalized it. In fact, they were at each other’s throats through most of the production, causing riffs that rippled throughout the cast. Both were drinking heavily and both felt threatened by the other.
Even Hayden, who couldn’t play the guitar or sing, later revealed that he hated the film because of the two women. Costumes were tossed out into the road. Bad attitudes were on display throughout, but the animosity between the actresses made for a GREAT clash on the screen. The anger on display in the saloon as the two women present their differing sides of the argument? Yeah, they aren’t acting. And it makes for great entertainment.
Thanks to the efforts of Olive Signature, Johnny Guitar – complete with a new 4k scan – gets a chance to be reconsidered as the classic western that it really is.
MPAA Rating: Not rated.
Runtime: 110 mins
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Philip Yordan
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
Tagline: Gun-Queen of the Arizona Frontier ! . . . and her kind of men !!!
Memorable Movie Quote: "Five years ago, I met you in a saloon; now I find you in one. I don't see much change."
Theatrical Distributor: Republic Pictures
Release Date: May 27, 1954
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: September 20, 2016
Synopsis: A strong willed female saloon owner is wrongly suspected of murder and bank robbery by a lynch mob, when she helps a wounded gang member.
Available on Blu-ray - September 20, 2016
Screen Formats: 1.66:1
Subtitles: English SDH
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A
Mastered from a new 4K restoration, the 1080p transfer is absolutely the best this western has ever looked. Period. The warmth in all of the colors throughout the picture is outstanding. You can practically feel the heat searing the Arizona ground. Reds are strong. Yellows absolutely pop. Black levels are solid throughout and shadows, deep and detailed, appear layered. The environments – especially outside – reveal a complex canvas for the action to roll out upon. When inside, the details in the set design are allowed breathing room. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track – which includes Peggy Lee’s hit song – is adequate for the release.
The audio commentary with historian and critic Geoff Andrew is a solid effort that echoes – more like elaborates upon – what Martin Scorsese had to say about the film in his introduction.
Highlighting cult favorites, time-honored classics, and under-appreciated gems, each Olive Signature edition boasts a pristine audio and video transfer, newly designed cover art, and an abundance of exciting bonus material. Their first release was High Noon. This is their second release and it does not disappoint.
- Introduction by Martin Scorsese
- Audio commentary with historian and critic Geoff Andrew
- “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” – with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein
- “Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon” – with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
- “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures” – with archivist Marc Wanamaker
- A critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich
- “My Friend, the American Friend” – Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich
- “Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western” – an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum