Blu-ray
Highly Recommended
4 stars
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4.5 Stars
Supplements
3.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

Johnny Guitar (Olive Signature)

Street Date:
September 20th, 2016
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
October 6th, 2016
Movie Release Year:
1954
Studio:
Olive Films
Length:
110 Minutes
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

"A man can lie, steal, and even kill, but as long as he hangs onto his pride, he's still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once, and she's a tramp."

Over the course of her legendary five-decade career, Joan Crawford appeared in dramas, comedies, musicals, and more than a few schlocky horror films. But she made only one western, and though it didn't cause much of a stir at the time of its release in 1954, 'Johnny Guitar' has grown in stature ever since. The titular character may be a man, but the movie is all about two women and how their twisted, bitter relationship poisons everything around them. Director Nicholas Ray's bizarre yet fascinating study of vengeance, survival, and - most importantly - a lynch mob society run amok brilliantly combines substantive issues with action, romance, and one helluva catfight. Among films of the period, it's utterly and bafflingly unique.

Vienna (a butch-looking Crawford) owns a high-class gambling saloon in the middle of nowhere near a dusty frontier town. Business is slow, but that's destined to change when the railroad gets built and brings civilization with it. Vienna can't wait, and begins shrewdly prepping her joint for success. Tough and uncompromising, she runs a tight ship, and keeps all the men who work for her on a short leash. "Never seen a woman who was more of a man," one of her employees grumbles. "She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." Vienna may wear the pants at her place, but Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) is the region's queen bee. Though sexually repressed, Emma brazenly leads a greedy army of cattle ranchers who want to keep progress at bay, usurp Vienna's land, and send the trouble-making visionary back East.

Emma also has a personal score to settle. When her beloved brother is killed during a stagecoach robbery, she believes the murderers are friends of Vienna's, especially the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), who frequently dallies with Vienna and to whom Emma is secretly attracted. The two women's mutual hatred escalates to dangerous degrees when Emma - with the blessing of Marshal Williams (Frank Ferguson) and his aggressive mouthpiece, John McIvers (Ward Bond) - gives Vienna and her disreputable cohorts 24 hours to pack up and leave town. Vienna makes a stink, but resigns herself to the edict, partially because her old flame Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has just sauntered into town, and she hopes to make a life with him. 

As a parting shot, the Dancin' Kid and his gang decide to knock off the town bank. Vienna and Johnny just happen to be there when the robbery occurs, and Emma immediately jumps to the conclusion that Vienna masterminded the heist. Blinded by rage, Emma rounds up a posse to search for her nemesis and bring her to justice, even though there's not a shred of evidence to convict her. In this world, however, you're guilty until proven innocent, and without proof, Vienna must stare down prejudice and face the townspeople's bitter and bloodthirsty wrath.

Prior to 'Johnny Guitar,' westerns were an exclusive boys club. Oh sure, some damsels in distress and heart-of-gold prostitutes supplied some attractive window dressing, but the guys ruled the roost, and the testosterone-fueled screenplays often brimmed with unabashed bravado. 'Johnny Guitar,' with a brash audacity, flips the genre on its ear by focusing on strong women who aren't intimidated by husky, trigger-happy males. Vienna and Emma don't only play with the big boys, they dominate them, taking  charge of every situation and flexing their brains like the men flex their biceps. These tough dames know what they want and know how to get it, and don't care who gets trampled in the process. Ironically, Johnny is the quiet, sensitive one, and though he knows how to handle a gun, he only resorts to force when provoked. The women, though, are as pugnacious as pit bulls, itching for conflicts, showdowns, and swift retributions.

Ray specialized in outsider films ('They Live by Night,' 'In a Lonely Place,' and his most famous effort, 'Rebel Without a Cause,' are some of his best) and 'Johnny Guitar' fits snugly into the niche. The women, of course, are outsiders by virtue of their gender, but Vienna, who represents progress and a shift toward a more genteel way of life, also stands alone against a rigid establishment hell-bent on crushing her. The parallels to McCarthyism - targeting and persecuting those who spout unpopular and subversive views, as well as those with whom they associate - is undeniable, and the screenplay by Philip Yordan (who may have been a front for a blacklisted writer) incisively depicts the mob mentality and its self-righteous, xenophobic attitudes. Take away all the romantic and violent trimmings and what's left is the story's central element - a witch hunt spearheaded by a venomous witch - and that's a premise rife with possibilities.

And 'Johnny Guitar' - intentionally or not - maximizes almost all of them. Some call it a Freudian western (is there a lesbian attraction between the two female characters?), some call it an ahead-of-its-time feminist western, and some call it a political western. No one calls it typical, and maybe that's why it all but bombed at the box office upon its initial release. At the time, westerns were escapist fare, and this one broke the mold, hitting too close to home on a variety of sensitive issues. Years later, Crawford still couldn't get past the movie's poor public reception. When discussing her involvement in 'Johnny Guitar' in the mid-1970s, she said, "I should have had my head examined. No excuse for a picture being this bad or for me making it."

Little did Joan know how wrong she was, and had she lived past 1977, she might have retracted the statement. Today, 'Johnny Guitar' is a cult favorite. Some might even term it the 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' of movie westerns, and the backstage feuding between Crawford and McCambridge certainly rivals the bickering between Crawford and Bette Davis that would transpire eight years later. After the crew applauded one of McCambridge's scenes, an enraged Crawford trashed McCambridge's costumes and threatened to walk off the picture unless her own role was beefed up. (Ray, for better or worse, acquiesced.) Tension quickly escalated, forcing Ray to shoot McCambridge's scenes early in the morning when Crawford, who reportedly arrived at the Sedona, Arizona location armed with 20 cases of vodka, wasn't around. According to biographer Alexander Walker, Crawford called McCambridge a witch, and "later claimed [she] had been casting spells on her." Even the normally subdued Hayden was appalled by Crawford's ludicrous demands and actions. Later, he told an interviewer, "There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money."

Ironically, the behind-the-scenes drama only seems to fuel the on-screen conflicts. The scenes between Crawford and McCambridge crackle with animosity, and though McCambridge does wind up stealing the show (her wild-eyed, almost orgasmic expression after she sets fire to Vienna's saloon is alone worth the price of the disc), all the other actors file finely etched portrayals. Crawford was just shy of 50 at the time, and no doubt her fear of aging and uncertainty over the future course of her career influenced her haughty behavior on the set, but her work is spot on and she creates believable chemistry with the rugged Hayden, whose soft-spoken demeanor and sensitivity complement her ferocity. Ferguson, Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, and a host of other top-flight character actors also add color and flair to the proceedings.

'Johnny Guitar' will never rival the iconic westerns of John Ford, but it's an offbeat, entertaining curio that adds some welcome spice to an often predictable genre. Even without its myriad layers of subtext - both on screen and off - this engrossing role-reversal film boasts assured direction, lush photography that showcases the breathtaking Sedona scenery, stellar performances, and a literate script. All that, and a gun-toting Joan Crawford, too! Priceless.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

The Olive Signature edition of 'Johnny Guitar' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside an attractive matte-finish sleeve. Along with the Gary Cooper western 'High Noon,' 'Johnny Guitar' is the inaugural release in the Olive Signature series, and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it's a classy, impressive product. An eight-page booklet featuring an insightful essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and several black-and-white and color scene shots - all printed on high-quality glossy stock - is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

This signature edition of 'Johnny Guitar' is a significant step up from Olive's previous Blu-ray release. The freshly minted 4K transfer restores the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio (the previous edition was 1.37:1), which expands the image and heightens the impact of the dramatic Sedona, Arizona locations. Other improvements include more vibrant contrast, stronger shadow delineation, and richer colors. (The famous Sedona red rocks benefit immeasurably from the more saturated palette.) Primaries, especially yellows and reds, pop, while inky blacks and crisp whites lend the picture necessary weight and presence. (The film was shot using the Republic-engineered TruColor process, one of the cheaper forms of Technicolor most of the studios were developing at the time, but it rarely betrays its cut-rate roots here.) Flesh tones are slightly rosy, but never appear artificial, and close-ups are sharp and detailed.

Grain is still evident and supplies necessary texture to this western conflict, and any stray print damage that dogged the previous release has been meticulously erased. Clarity is so good, the painted backdrops that can be seen outside doors and windows during studio-shot, interior sequences call undue attention to themselves, but thankfully the distractions are brief. A few scenes are a tad softer than others, but the picture remains pretty consistent throughout.

No banding, crush, or noise crop up, and any digital enhancements escape notice. Though it may not be perfect, this superior transfer is a joy to watch from start to finish, and any serious fan of this classic western should by all means upgrade to this restored edition.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track embraces all the sonic hallmarks of westerns and renders them with vibrancy and nuance. Explosions, horse hooves, gunfire, fisticuffs, waterfalls, wind, and a crackling fire brim with a you-are-there immediacy that helps put us in the thick of the atmosphere. A wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, and no age-related imperfections like hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. All the dialogue is clear and comprehendible, and Victor Young's memorable music score - as well as the closing song performed by Peggy Lee - benefits from superior fidelity and fills the room with ease. This is a lively, immersive track that makes this 62-year-old classic seem almost brand new.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

The first Blu-ray release of 'Johnny Guitar' included only one extra - an introduction by Martin Scorsese. This Signature edition keeps that supplement and adds several more, upping the ante significantly and providing viewers with valuable context and perspective that enhances this classic film.

  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese (SD, 3 minutes) - The Academy Award-winning director calls 'Johnny Guitar' "one of the cinema's great operatic works," with a tone that is "convulsive and passionate." He praises the movie's use of color and how the film deviates from all western conventions - two reasons why the reputation of 'Johnny Guitar' has significantly grown over the decades.

  • Audio Commentary - Critic Geoff Andrew sits down for an informative and well-spoken commentary that addresses the film's themes, production history, and behind-the-scenes drama, as well as the background of many cast and crew members. Andrew says 'Johnny Guitar' "reflects the aura of suspicion and betrayal that defined America" at the time, and helped usher in the era of the politicized and allegorical western. He explores the picture's Freudian implications and how it incisively critiques masculinity, and calls director Nicholas Ray "one of the great cinematic stylists of post-war Hollywood," a man whose films focus on "outsiders, outcasts, loners, and losers." Andrew also outlines in detail how Joan Crawford's egotistical demands altered the script's direction, and notes Sterling Hayden's hatred of being a movie actor and regret over cooperating with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. This is a substantive track that fans of this fascinating movie will certainly enjoy.

  • Featurette: "'Johnny Guitar': A Western Like No Other" (HD, 17 minutes) - A gaggle of critics evaluate the style and substance of a film they call "a monstrosity" and "very odd, very strange." They analyze the various layers and meanings that permeate 'Johnny Guitar,' and cite various influences that contribute to its visual and thematic success.

  • Featurette: "'Johnny Guitar': A Feminist Western?" (HD, 15 minutes) - The same critical crew examines how strong, complicated women use power and sexuality to drive the narrative, while exploring the movie's larger social and political agendas. They dissect the relationship between Vienna and Emma (including a possible lesbian attraction), and ponder the question: what does it mean to be a woman in this film?

  • Featurette: "Tell Us She Was One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and 'Johnny Guitar'" (HD, 10 minutes) - This absorbing piece recaps the origin of the Hollywood HUAC investigation, suggests 'Johnny Guitar' screenwriter Philip Yordan might have been fronting for Ben Maddow (Yordan denied it), and provides first-hand insight on the turbulent period from blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who recalls his involvement with the Communist Party and HUAC, and discusses how the Woody Allen movie 'The Front' came about. 

  • Featurette: "Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures" (HD, 6 minutes) - Though not a comprehensive retrospective, this interesting featurette explains the philosophy of Republic Pictures, examines its glory days in the early 1950s, charts the development of the studio's TruColor process, and looks at how executive Herbert J. Yates' marriage to actress Vera Hruba-Ralston ultimately harmed the studio. 

  • Featurette: "My Friend, the American Friend: Memories of Nicholas Ray" (HD, 11 minutes) - Two of Ray's colleagues share enlightening details about the director's personality, and recall his "outsider" status in Hollywood, how he related to 'Johnny Guitar,' and his troubled final years in this intimate reflection.

  • Essay: "'Johnny Guitar': The First Existential Western" - This insightful essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that's included in the disc's accompanying booklet can also be accessed on screen using the remote.

  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - This faded, beat-up preview that includes a couple of alternate takes really makes us appreciate the new 4K restoration.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no high-def exclusives.

Final Thoughts

Make no mistake, 'Johnny Guitar' has little to do with its titular character, focusing instead on the vicious hatred between two strong-willed women who try their damnedest to destroy each other. This fascinating Freudian western brims with psychological subtext, while supplying plenty of action, intrigue, excitement, and eye-filling scenery, all of which help it achieve classic status. Once again, Olive produces an exceptional signature edition that features a newly restored 4K video transfer, excellent audio, and Criterion-worthy supplements and packaging. 'Johnny Guitar' may not be the genre's most distinguished entry, but it's surely one of its most unique, and the top-notch direction, incisive performances, and substantive script make this wildly dramatic - and slightly crazy - film memorable. Highly recommended.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
  • Mastered from new 4K restoration

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.66:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0

Subtitles/Captions

  • English

Supplements

  • 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 Herb Yates and Republic Studios" - 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
  • "'Johnny Guitar': The First Existential Western" - an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • Theatrical Trailer

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