Johnny Guitar is my favorite Nicholas Ray film for a number of reasons. I love Westerns. I also love strange revisionist Westerns that fuck with the genre. I love the fact that Sterling Hayden is constantly on the verge of self parody and that Mercedes McCambridge has created one of the most bizarre villains of all time. I’ve never loved Joan Crawford, but can’t really picture anyone else in her role.
Then there’s the gender role reversals, which, just works perfectly (and could so easily have backfired.) Finally, Johnny Guitar is a textbook example of how to do political subtext right. Frankly, I find outright politicing in most films boring, but this veiled look at the McCarthy witch hunts makes its point stronger than most other films directly about the subject.
Danny Peary’s essay on Johnny Guitar is one of the best reasons to buy his book, Cult Movies. He lays out this political interpretation (quoting Michael Wilmington) very convincingly. Below is his key passage:
“The characters can be schematized from a purely political angle… The outlaws, who live and work communally, who are blamed for every wrongdoing in town, whose leader is [left handed] become symbolic communists. Johnny, the ex-gun-man, is the ex-communist (now mere entertainers) called before HUAC. Vienna – consort of the outlaws – is a fellow traveler. Emma suggests those vindictive witnesses and politicians who used the investigations to destroy the careers of their hated rivals…” And so on. He goes on to discuss how Vienna wears red once she decides to throw her lot in with the outlaws.