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Film / Johnny Guitar

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"What if you go, what if you stay, I love you
But if you're cruel, you can be kind, I know
There was never a man like my Johnny
Like the one they call Johnny Guitar"
Title song performed by Peggy Lee

Johnny Guitar is a 1954 Western film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady, Mercedes McCambridge, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, and John Carradine. It was produced by Republic Pictures and shot in the candy-coloured Trucolor format.

Vienna (Crawford) is the owner of a saloon in a town in Arizona that's in a period of transition. A successful businesswoman, she is the object of envy by Emma Small (McCambridge), a cattle baron's daughter who loathes Vienna and the new level of influence she would have at the onset of a railroad that Vienna supports against the interest of the cattle owners. Things change for Vienna with the unexpected arrival of two men. The Dancin' Kid (Brady), the leader of a band of outlaws, who is accused of holding up a stagecoach and enjoys flirting with Vienna, the other is Johnny "Guitar" Logan (Hayden), a drifter with a guitar who is also an Old Flame that Vienna hoped to forget. The explosive relationships between the characters soon get out of control, plunging them into chaos.

Famous in later years for being an "avant-garde" Western, Johnny Guitar is known for its bright colours and visuals, its unusual set design, strong female protagonists and anti-authoritarian sentiments; rare for Westerns of The '50s. The theme song is also remembered for appearing in Fallout: New Vegas.

Tropes appearing in this film include:

  • Anyone Can Die: By the end of the film the only ones living are Vienna, Johnny, the posse: the rest all die, including everyone of the Dancin' Kid's gang, the Marshall, Emma Small, Old Tom.
  • Asshole Victim: Emma, who dies losing a duel to Vienna.
  • Big Bad: Emma Small is the daughter of a cattle baron who wants to ruin Vienna and the outlaws she befriends, and stop the railroad Vienna supports.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Vienna's Saloon is oddly located and carved into the base of a canyon above a mine shaft. It's especially obvious in the interiors of the saloon and see natural canyon rock formations in the interiors used as a rear wall. Film critics noted that it was especially reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural philosophy blending natural and man-made materials.note 
  • Create Your Own Villain: The Dancin' Kid and his gang weren't responsible for the heist the townsfolk accuse them of, but eventually the outlaws decide Then Let Me Be Evil and rob the town bank to spite them.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Vienna and Johnny Logan were once lovers, and Logan was a brutal outlaw who rode with posses and killed for a living, who eventually had to leave Vienna, forcing her into prostitution until she eventually saved enough to start her own business.
  • Deconstruction: One of the first Westerns to definitively upturn many of its genre conventions.
    • The classic White Hat=Good and Black Hat=Evil division in Westerns is turned since the film's villains are the "townsfolk" whipped into a frenzy by Emma Small and they are all dressed in black, while the protagonists and the outlaws are dressed in colourful clothes of different shades. Indeed, it's Small's insistence on seeing her enemies as entirely evil and in cahoots with each other, ignoring the divisions between them that leads to violence.
    • It also examines the attraction and danger of gun violence. Turkey, the young outlaw of the Dancin' Kid's gang associates masculinity with being a a fast shooter, whereas Johnny Logan is a Retired Outlaw who is fleeing his outlaw past by trading a weapon for a guitar.
    • Frontier justice is nothing more than brutal Kangaroo Court that leads to the townsfolk and authorities acting like another gang, and in many ways being far worse than the outlaws. Emma Small the "leader" of the posse uses the Dancin' Kid and other crimes as an excuse for her personal rivalry with Vienna.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The posse blackmail and bully Turkey, the young member of the Outlaw gang to denounce Vienna as an accomplice (which she isn't). When they threaten to lynch him, Turkey asks Vienna what to do, to which she says, "Save yourself!" leading Turkey to lie and name Vienna as an accomplice. The posse then lynches Turkey anyway, and would have hung Vienna had Johnny Guitar not come and saved her. This was an attack on the HUAC which blacklisted and shamed everyone who came to them to testify.
  • The Drifter: As Johnny Logan says:
    Johnny Guitar: "I've a great respect for a gun, and besides I'm a stranger here myself!"
  • Evil Reactionary: Emma Small and the town seek to enforce the Good Old Ways and forbid by any means necessary the settlement and industry of those they consider outsiders, oppose the arrival of the railroad and the business and new people it would bring, and seek to persecute Vienna solely because she's a woman who owns property and runs her business. They are willing to enforce Status Quo Is God or reverse the status-quo with brutal violence and utter contempt for the law.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Johnny Guitar was once, according to Vienna, an extremely brutal outlaw. Within the film he confesses to have ridden with posses and ridden against them, he's shown to have itchy trigger fingers and Vienna is visibly scared and terrified at what would happen should he grab a gun again.
  • Heroic Bystander: Old Tom is very self-consciously one. He's just a hand at Vienna's Saloon but observes in the corner and longs to be important. He hangs back at Vienna's saloon after she dismisses the rest of the staff and ends up dying trying to defend her.
    Old Tom: First time every time's seeing me. Always wanted to be important.
  • Irony: Emma Small hates Vienna for her untraditional ways and for acting like a man. Yet, by sheer charisma and conviction, Emma leads the very patriarchal posse against Vienna, flouting the traditional ways of women as well.
  • Kangaroo Court: The townsfolk and cattle barons form a "posse" self appointed vigilantes who appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner and lynch their captives regardless of degree or kind of crime, or sufficient evidence:
    Johnny Guitar: A posse isn't people. I've ridden with 'em, and I've ridden against 'em. A posse is an animal that moves like one and thinks like one.
    Vienna: They're men with itchy fingers and a coil of rope around their saddle horns, lookin' for somebody to hang. And after riding a few hours they don't care much who they hang.
  • Living Legend: Johnny Logan is such a feared gunslinger that he hides his name as Johnny Guitar to avoid drawing attention. Notably the Dancin' Kid who jostled with Johnny for Vienna's affections throughout the film immediately steps back when he finds out precisely who it is he's been messing with.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Not by choice anyway. Vienna insists to Johnny that he left her with no options and so she had to work as a prostitute until she saved enough money to start her own business and she also admits that she had a shallow relationship with the Dancin' Kid. It takes Johnny a little while but he comes around and accepts it, mostly because he understands that it is his own damn fault.
    Vienna: A man can lie, cheat and kill and go on talking about his pride, but a woman slips just once, and she has none left.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Presumably the Dancin' Kid's real name isn't the Dancin' Kid, nor is Turkey's real name Turkey.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Vienna represents the Enlightenment, an independent woman with strong business acumen who welcomes the arrival of the railroad and associated industrialization as an opportunity for personal, social and general advancement, treats her employees fairly and against her is Emma Small and the Posse, who are fearful of progress, dismissive of laws and legal precedent and fear the end of their ways.
  • Saloon Owner: Vienna is a rare protagonist version. She built a small saloon that is set to prosper with the arrival of the railroad, located at the base of a canyon but is already functional and efficient, with lodgings, gambling tables and a disciplined staff on duty.
  • Secondary Character Title: Johnny Guitar is the Deuteragonist, the true main character is Vienna.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Emma Small and her Posse, led by McIvers don't have the legal right to do all this, and the Marshall vainly follows them trying and failing to establish some form of due process to no avail. As such they can force Vienna and the Dancin' Kid despite both being legal settlers from outside the town to close shop and run them out of town, on the flimsiest of charges.
  • Slasher Smile: After setting Vienna's saloon ablaze, Emma dons one of these as she leaves.
  • Take That!: Nicholas Ray and the screenwriters, Philip Yordan and an uncredited Ben Maddow (writing under a front because he was blacklisted) intended the posse led by Emma Small to be one for McCartyhism. Ward Bond, one of the leaders of the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance plays one of the posse-leaders (albeit a more reluctant sort than Emma).
  • The Trope Kid: The leader of the outlaws is the Dancin' Kid.
  • Turncoat: Bart (Ernest Borgnine) is this for the Dancin' Kid's gang. He constantly rails against the group, insists that they abandon Turkey, and murders Corey when he refuses to go with the scheme, and finally dies trying to shoot the Dancin' Kid in the back.
  • Young Gun: "Turkey", one of the Dancing Kid's gang. When Vienna (Joan Crawford) tells him he's still a boy, he tries to prove he's a man by shooting at saltshakers off a table. Johnny Guitar(Sterling Hayden) rushes in and shoots the gun out of his hand.
  • Undying Loyalty: Old Tom (John Carradine) has this for Vienna, staying with her even when he doesn't have to and when it is dangerous. He ends up dying in Vienna's arms after heroically trying and failing to stop her from being arrested by the posse.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Joan Crawford was star and main producer so it's rather obvious that she gets the most wardrobe changes of any character. It's especially odd considering that it's a Wild West setting and a short time span of three days which sees her change her costumes a jawdropping six times.
  • Victory by Endurance: Vienna's general plan. Her saloon is located outside town at the base of a cliff above a mining shaft, and receives slim business but once the railroad comes, and an accompanying Boom Town arrives she is set to prosper. As such she is set to prosper even if when the townsfolk force her to close shop. All she has to do is wait and occupy the land and wait for the railroad. That strategy ends when Emma Small's posse comes and burns down her property.
  • White Shirt of Death: Vienna wears a white dress when Emma and her posse arrive in the saloon to lynch her. For added effect, she plays a piano.