Johnny Guitar (1954)
Ray's 1954 western Johnny Guitar is, as much of Ray's work in other genres, a highlight of its kind. Against a backdrop of the barely-tamed west, Ray spins a tale of sexual and psychological repression, examining its behaviors first in individuals, then widening his scope to see it manifest into groups and societies. Johnny Guitar has as much to say about its contemporary American culture as it had to say about the culture of the west, showing us the infamous rugged individualism of the American frontier held back and caged in by a populace that has as much xenophobia running through its veins as it has pioneering spirit. In many ways Johnny Guitar is about the transformation of a first generation of settlers, who came to 'untamed' country and cultivated it (or in this case ranched it), only to watch as enterprise paved the way, with dynamite and rail ties, for those without the stomach for the wild west to move in to the domesticated west and set up shop. To undertake the task, to trek out into wild country and lay the groundwork meant sacrifice, and for the women of Ray's film, it meant transcending their gender roles as well. For Johnny Guitar's Freudian script, the unfulfilled gender role causes deep-seated trauma and an urge to kill anything or anyone that makes the film's villain, Emma, "feel like a woman". For everyone but Crawford's Vienna, their role in life has forced them to band together for survival, when the band becomes one thinking unit and acts more like a posse, well, as the film's titular character puts it "a posse thinks like an animal", it ceases to become a collection of thinking men and makes decisions on base instinct, usually violent decisions. The witch hunt that ensues in the film mirrors Americas own witch hunt at the time for communist sympathizers in Hollywood's McCarthy-era blacklisting. When the posse-mindset takes over, individual identities make no difference, the herd must act and the actions won't be impeded by judgement. All guilt and responsibility are alleviated; the hanging of the young outlaw, Turkey, seems as justice in the eyes of the mob.
The film's thematic roots run deep. Crawford's Vienna chooses her path based on information gleaned from one-on-one partnerships rather than banding with the group for survival, as this threatens the group, they can think of nothing but ousting her, even murdering her and burning her saloon to the ground is barely enough. Ray does well to delve into little of the film's backstory save for a few details about their tangled romantic relationships. As the best of western drama and melodrama, we are dropped straight into the high point of the action with an opening sequence that play out for the film's entire first act. Ray's methodical direction ramps the sequence up throughout, taking the narrative stakes up with each new revelation. Men are judged by their ability to drink and shoot to garner respect, causing an instant competition for dominance at the appearance of a 'guitar man' who's new in town. Respect is earned only through consistent competition, and each character must fight for their claim time and time again, no contest being final. What stands out most in Johnny Guitar, more than all of its thematic complexity and commentary, is Ray's steady and focused direction of the film's evolution. Keeping us strictly within Vienna's saloon for the entire duration of the opening act, only to burn our only known world down at the conclusion of the second is a master stroke of storytelling that bears its fruit in the final act as the feeling of vulnerability pervades every frame, no alliance can be trusted. double-crossing and (literal) backstabbings litter the finale as the rugged west is brought to vivid life. The deep color of the image, the high-key performances and the high-key lighting draw us in in a way that is at once expressive as it is rousing. There is a dreamlike quality to the film on a purely visual level that most westerns cannot achieve, the intoxicating color of the outdoor sequences and Crawford's bright costumes shine. Beyond its symbolism and theatricality in presentation, however, is a deeply realist and humane story of the underpinnings of the human mind unraveling when in survival mode. The ties that bind break down when the mob is formed, the retaliation is swift when its reasoning is questioned.
Above all, Ray's operatic film is purely cinematic. His visual communication is without a misstep from the opening, rife with well placed closeups to rolling shot glasses, to his use of the spinning roulette wheel to add tension. Johnny Guitar is a deeply crafted genre picture that succeeds on the merits of its drama just as easily as its themes resonate throughout. As the game for psychological dominance trades from the groupthink of the posse to the power games of individuals in the film's final act, Ray makes use of the dichotomy to highlight the role of lust, sexual and financial. The film's love story, which is never front and center serves as a fitting backdrop and the shootout that ends the final act is some of Ray's best sequencing and design. Johnny Guitar succeeds on a strong narrative and direction, even Ray's use of music to break up some of his centerpiece sequences elevates the film's craft. Johnny Guitar is not only one of the best films of Ray's career but one of the best westerns that the 1950's Hollywood studios have to offer. The film is explosive from beginning to end.