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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Johnny Guitar

Dispensing with archetypes that populated so many westerns, Nicholas Ray’s memorable 1954 Republic Pictures production, Johnny Guitar, released as an impressive Olive Signature Blu-ray is filled with vivid, unpredictable characters. From an action perspective, the film is rudimentary—there are a couple of fistfights, some gunplay and a chase or two—but the emotions of the characters make up for it. Sudden fiery bursts or sustained flares of feelings leap out of the characters, and are as exciting as any quick draw. The plot also benefits. It’s filled with gaps (a stage robbery in the opening scene is never resolved) and odd fantasies (a gang of men have a nice cabin on a hilltop that is somehow hidden from view and can only be reached by traveling under a waterfall), but it moves forward breathlessly on the interactions between the characters, and nothing else matters. Like Joan Crawford’s character, it is dressed in a western costume but something very different resides underneath.

Sterling Hayden Johnny Guitar, hired to play music at a casino built into a rock face by Crawford’s character, who is expecting that train tracks will eventually come close enough to start a town. (Most of the interiors are made of cozy-looking wood but the rear walls are boulders.) Another group is against progress, but have been worked into a tizzy because a rancher, played to furious perfection by Mercedes McCambridge, is jealous that one of the men from the gang in the cabin likes Crawford’s character and not her (or maybe that Crawford’s character likes him and not her, or both). Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Paul Fix and Royal Dano co-star.

The Blu-ray comes fromOlive’s most recent re-mastering of the film, which looks nicer than faded, grainy presentations of the past. The colors are vivid—especially Crawford’s outfits—and while the image is not as slick as it might have been if the film had been produced for a fancier studio, it looks good enough to keep you involved in the drama. The monophonic sound is quite clean, and the music is smooth. There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer.

The film has undergone all manner of critical deconstruction over the years, with good cause, and film critic Geoff Andrew in his commentary track conveys the essential ideas. In addition talking about the cast and crew, their history, and how they worked together, he points out the film’s Freudian undercurrents, the dynamics of the movie’s designs, the undermining of western traditions (“In this case, the women are driving the action, from start to finish.”), and other symbolic features. “One of the strange things about Johnny Guitar is that it works almost as an elemental story of very primal forces and primitive emotions, and Ray certainly pushes the symbolism of the elements quite a lot. At the beginning, we saw how there was a dust storm, as well as explosions, and, you know, the land was being whipped up by the wind, which was almost hurling people into [the] saloon. Fire and water also come into play.”

Along with a three-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese (“An intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtext that rendered it extremely modern.”), the disc also contains a number of retrospective featurettes. The best is a 14-minute analysis of Ray’s film as an early feminist western, examining not only how some of the gender roles are switched in the movie, but how others are not switched, and how innovative the film was for its time in this regard. There is a good 10-minute piece that goes over the murky history of its screenwriting credits and examines important parts of its story as being analogous to the HUAC trials; another good six-minute summary of the history of Republic Pictures and how that relates to the production of the film; and an 11-minute segment about Ray’s late career, featuring interviews with people who worked with him on his final two films.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas