The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Johnny Guitar

Certain westerns try to switch things up when it comes to the old reliables of the genre. One of those is the male hero. Nicholas Ray's offbeat 1954 western Johnny Guitar turned that aspect of westerns away immediately with Joan Crawford as the lead and a woman as her main rival. A definite inspiration for Sergio Leone with Once Upon a Time in the West, the basic plot is similar, this was an interesting movie that certainly deserves its cult status.

A guitar-playing cowboy (it's not as bad as it sounds) rides into a lonely saloon one day looking for a job as a musician. His name: Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden in one of his better parts). He has a past with the saloon owner, Vienna (Joan Crawford), who is sitting on a fortune and everyone knows it. She owns much of the land where the railroad will have to drive through. When the rails reach her acreage, she'll be rich. But not so fast, Guitar finds out there's two factions in town, the ranchers and the outlaws.

Tough-talking Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and ranch owner John McIvers (Ward Bond) want Vienna out of the town so they can swoop in and grab her land and saloon. On Vienna's side is a gang led by an outlaw called the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). The Kid and his gang, Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper), Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine), and Corey (Royal Dano) are as equally hated as Vienna. Johnny Guitar rode into town thinking he had an easy job playing his guitar but finds out quickly nothing comes easy. Throw in John Carradine and Paul Fix as two of Vienna's employees and you've got quite a cast.

Lots going on here in this western. It's a talkative western with some gunplay sprinkled in but not too much. There's elements of other genres, straight romance stories, bits of film noir, and even a little McCarthy-ism just for good measure. And as mentioned, there's a lot of influence on later westerns, especially OUATITW. A posse all dressed in black hunts down the Kid and his gang look like something out of a spaghetti western like Django Kill! And where most westerns don't know what to do with female characters, this one puts them front and center. Both characters are interesting and developed with the fanatical rivalry kinda frightening.

The cast works well for the most part. Crawford doesn't look comfortable, but she gives a good performance. Always a little wooden in the acting department, Hayden pulls off the part of a guitar-playing cowboy with a past well. McCambridge is a good counter to Crawford as two women who hate each other and would love to see the other one dead. The finale, a shootout between the two, is the only woman vs. woman gunfight I can even think of in a western. About as different from the norm as you could get with a western, especially in the straight-laced 50s, Johnny Guitar should be a must-see for western fans!

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