One of Nicholas Ray’s entries in the Book cites him as one of the most underrated Hollywood directors, both today and when he was working in the industry. If films like Johnny Guitar are any indication, that statement is woefully correct. Starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, Johnny Guitar could be called a western, but it is mostly a drama. And what drama there is to be had. I don’t remember what I was expecting going into this one, but whatever it was was blown clear out of my head by the sheer volume of drama that this film exudes. Strap yourself in, and grab a pair of safety goggles; you’re gonna need them.
The film starts out simple enough, with a man riding a horse toward a saloon in the middle of a dust storm. Once he gets there, though, and we establish the characters and the setting, the film really gets going, and it never. lets. up. Not for a second. This film absolutely oozes melodrama – every single line just drips with it, and for once it’s not the romantic kind; it’s the angry kind, the stern, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners kind, where everybody’s got a bone to pick with everybody else, and no one backs down no matter how many implied threats are levied their way. Despite Sterling Hayden playing the title character, this film is all Crawford’s. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of Crawford being the romantic lead, with how stone-cold her expression tends to be, and she amps that aspect up to eleven for this one; not to mention the fact that she was pushing 50 when this was made, and her age was fairly obvious watching her in this, which made the soapy love drama a little less believable. The film also contains some pretty stunning color cinematography for its time, which in my case was helped along by the print I saw being absolutely pristine (like, scary good quality), which is something one can easily take for granted whether or not it’s there, but I appreciated the hell out of it.
This one took me completely by surprise, so much so I actually had to reign myself in when it came time to decide whether or not I liked it; or rather, how much. I liked it, even though the melodrama got so thick at times that it was damn near laughable, but I was easily able to overlook that in the face of the sheer entertainment value. However, I can also see how some people just won’t be able to watch this, due to the extreme camp factor that the melodrama unfortunately falls into due to the simple age of the film, but if you’re inclined to ignore how old it is, put yourself squarely in the era and demographic the film caters to, this will be quite a pleasant little gem for you, especially if you get a good quality print like I did. Take the time; you just might find a new favorite here.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10