MCN Columnists
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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