Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.
How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.
Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.
There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.
A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.
Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.
Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).
Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.
Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.
A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ’em and I’ve ridden against ’em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.
Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.
It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…
Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.