Johnny Guitar (1954)

Dir. Nicholas Ray. Joan Crawford stars as Vienna, the owner of a saloon on the outskirts of an Arizona border town. Vienna dreams of founding a new community when the railroad makes its way across the landscape and recruits an old flame (Jonny Guitar) to play some tunes, and if trouble comes knocking, to provide some additional muscle. A beautiful stylistic drama with a classic western setting. Joan Crawford is dynamite, strutting through the film with equal measures of wit, menace, and romance. The use of music is beyond the typical western of the era, blending suspenseful orchestral score, diegetic music in Vienna’s saloon where the film almost becomes opera, to the stunning Peggy Lee ballad ‘Jonny Guitar’, which must have been an inspiration for Tarantino’s western inspired films half a century later. In a sign of the relatively small world of Hollywood, Vienna’s loyal steward Tom is played by John Carradine, whose son David would later play the titular roll in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Joan Crawford acquired the rights to the novel the film was based on, and initially wanted Betty Davis to play the other prominent female role, Emma Small. That inspired casting choice was not to be, but Mercedes McCambridge is superb, and we only had to wait another eight years to see Crawford and Davis on screen together. Johnny Guitar is an unusual and wonderful film, drenched with style and subtext and worth spending time with.

By Nicholas Hudson-Ellis

Co-Founder & Film Programs Manager of Bangkok Screening Room.