Defined as a cult classic, and often cited as one of the greatest films of one of the most recognized auteurs in the minds of the greats of the French New Wave, read here Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar stands as a superb and innovative Western. The directors you can look for when you are listing the best Western genre filmmakers are of course John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann. Often forgotten, is Nicholas Ray with his Freudian approach to the genre and a redefining “mise en scène”. The “classic” Western used to be a very macho thing and the women’s roles often were characterized by their simplicity and their somewhat absence. However, here in Johnny Guitar the presence of Joan Crawford as Vienna is central and essential.
The context in which the film was created was McCarthyism in the United States and the subtext of Johnny Guitar is all about how the mass perceives the outsiders and how those outsiders are excluded. The script, written by Ben Maddow but credited to Philipp Yordan, was the work of a man (Maddow) blacklisted at the time because of leftist involvement. As the true auteur, Ray was also an outcast all his life, with auto-destructive manners and strong rumours of his bisexuality, Johnny Guitar reads like one of the most personal films ever made. It involves the struggle of everyone between good and evil and how the characters cannot be all black or all white. They are portrayed as humans and nobody’s a hero or a complete antagonist devoid of feelings. The inner struggles of its creators are reflected in a controlled yet magnificent creation that is Johnny Guitar.
Despite its flaws, and yes it has some, I would like to cite my colleague Kevyn Knox that himself quoted François Truffaut “we don’t like those films even with their flaws, we like them for those flaws”. I would like to add to this the fact that as critics we always like to praise perfect films with great directing, amazing acting, superb editing etc. But as a cinephile I tend to prefer the lesser or not the masterpiece films of a director. In example, my favourite Howard Hawks picture is Hatari!. I know that this is far from being his Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, or Bringing Up Baby, but I will prefer a great film to a flawless picture. This is why Johnny Guitar is often categorized as overrated by its detractors for its many flaws and lesser contribution to the seventh Art. However, since it’s my review and my rating I will mete Johnny Guitar a 5 star rating.