It’s hard today to imagine the impact an actress like Joan Crawford had on the entertainment scene. Fiercely independent, she refused to play the ‘studio system’ game, forging a career that saw her move from bit-parts in silent films to Oscar-winning roles.
While often cast as the gutsy working girl, Crawford was always happy to push the envelope—and Johnny Guitar was very much her baby.
Crawford not only owned the rights to the book but hired Nicholas Ray as director. The result is an extraordinary film that looks like a cheap porn movie—right down to Crawford’s fetishistic black leather—but plays out like Dietrich’s Blue Angel, remade as a Western.
The title references Vienna’s supposed love-interest, played by Sterling Hayden, but the real fire takes place between Vienna and her rival, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). The two women may feud and fight but the film’s bisexual undertones are barely under at all.
In Johnny Guitar, all the usual Western tropes are turned on their head. The women are the snarling, posturing bar-owners and cattle barons. The men are soft-spoken, love-lorn and totally outclassed—even the titular Johnny Guitar. In fact, Francois Truffault, speaking of the film, said it reminded him of Beauty and the Beast “with Sterling Hayden being the beauty.”
The lurid colour-scheme, the heightened performances, the costumes, the set–or rather the absence of one–give the whole film a surreal atmosphere. Johnny Guitar is a strange, almost operatic production that stretches credulity to its limit. Yet, there’s method beneath the madness–and Freud would have had a field-day with it.
Misunderstood by US audiences upon release, the film was embraced by European cineastes and is now regarded as one of the greatest western pictures of all time. An intensely stylised masterpiece, Johnny Guitar makes its UK debut on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.
The Blu-ray is from a 4K restoration of the original film elements, framed in the film’s originally intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Presented in a Limited Edition Set of only 3,000 copies, the release features a Hardbound Slipcase and 60-page Collector’s Booklet, featuring new essays on the making of Johnny Guitar and on female gunslingers in the western genre.