In Johnny Guitar did Nicholas Ray
A weird and twisted tale decree:
Where meanings, measureless to man, ran
Down to Albuquerque …
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) is a machine for reading, and the only readings that fail to make the film sound interesting are those which try to reign in its excess. When I am told that, for instance, the character of Emma Small (played by a wonderfully deranged Mercedes McCambridge) is a repressed lesbian who cannot admit her lust for Joan Crawford’s gun-slinging Vienna, I usually find myself clicking on Facebook to catch up with the latest cat video.
For mine, Emma does not represent a sexuality that dared not speak its name in pre-Elvis America (the film was shot in 1954, two years before the King broke bad all over the place with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, his first major-label release on the way to intergalactic domination); she represents a particular kind of capital, the kind that was made to feel guilty and anti-modern in the context of the new, entrepreneurial capital of the post-war years which underwrote the consumerist dream that Mad Men would later come to fetishise. A latter-day Gina Rinehart, Emma’s power and wealth are not the products of her own labour and industry, but of the cattle empire that she and her brother inherit from their late father – which devolves to her alone upon her brother’s death at the beginning of the film. Like that of the other cattle barons in Johnny Guitar, her kind of capital derives from owning vast tracts of land (even when they’re not conspicuously present, Indians are never entirely absent from Westerns) and, by its very territorial nature, it is the kind of capital that is available only to a few. It is in the cattle barons’ interests, then, to oppose the new kind of capital – speculative, entrepreneurial, mobile – vested in the Crawford character, who is waiting for the railroad to bring modernity and development opportunities to the New Mexico desert and the nearby town of Albuquerque.
Economically independent (her money seemingly made from prostitution in the years following her break-up with Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan/Sterling Hayden), Vienna is, therefore, sexually independent. In the beginning she has chosen the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) for her lover, but later chooses to reunite with Johnny in a scene that typifies the film’s many genre flips, parodying the gender roles assigned to lovers on screen:
Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.
Johnny: Don’t go away.
Vienna: I haven’t moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure. What do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …
Vienna: All these years I’ve waited.
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.
Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
For Vienna, capital is liberating, reflecting a certain experience of independence that women gained from running the economy in wartime America. But, to the extent that her liberation symbolises the possibility of women’s breaking bad en masse, her gender and the kind of capital she represents pose a threat to the social order that sustains the cattle barons’ power and wealth. A self-made ‘new’ woman, Vienna opens a future that Emma must oppose; hence the pharmakon (see Derrida, 1981) of Emma’s inheritance: it confers privilege and insures against poverty, but condemns her to repeat the past, and to a mode of being she did not create. Ironically, then, the old-West cattle barons’ community defines itself as a community in opposition to the American Dream, the utopic form of which would extend the means of wealth-production (economic as well as cultural capital) to the greatest number. So, when Vienna kills Emma in the climactic shootout, what is being celebrated is not the conservative triumph of hetero-normalcy over sexual deviance, since, on the contrary, the deviance is all on Vienna’s side.
Convention, conformity, constraint: these are the values and forces that Emma represents, and she defends them hysterically – McCambridge was said by one critic of the day to have done ‘most of her acting with her teeth and eyebrows’ (ctd in Charney, 1990: 29) – not for Freudian reasons, but for the sake of her privileged class interests.
Breaking bad or being good? To exceed or to conform to type? To reinvent or to reproduce genre, or gender? These are modern questions, modern choices, and it seems to me that Nicholas Ray’s film affirms the risk of their necessity. This may be why the Nouvelle Vague, the cinematic avant-garde of the day, lavished such praise on Johnny Guitar, since they did not share their US contemporaries’ investment in preserving a certain idea of ‘America’ made over into a Technicolor icon exemplified by John Ford’s panoramic Monument Valley. So, for example, François Truffaut (writing in Cahiers du cinéma in 1955) called Johnny Guitar ‘hallucinatory’ and ‘the Beauty and the Beast’ of westerns (1985: 142), paying homage to it in a scene from his own Mississippi Mermaid (1969) when Jean-Paul Belmondo says to Catherine Deneuve on leaving the cinema after watching Johnny Guitar: ‘It’s not about horses and guns’. Jean-Luc Godard references Ray’s film in no fewer than four of his own, and famously eulogised its director in Cahiers (1958) by claiming ‘the cinema is Nicholas Ray’ (1985: 118).
For American reviewers at the time of the film’s release, however, it was precisely that Johnny Guitar is not about horses and guns – at least not as ridden and toted by men – that was the problem. The New York Times’ critic labeled the film a ‘fiasco’ (Crowther, 1954: 19), while the critic for Catholic World argued that if Johnny Guitar were not ‘so awfully pretentious and self-consciously dramatic, it could have made a fairly taut Western’ (Kass, 1954: 271). Variety’s reviewer damned the film for being ‘so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialog, that Johnny Guitar never has enough chance to rear up in the saddle and ride at an acceptable outdoor pace’ (Anonymous, 1954: 6).
But what these US reviews failed to see was their reproduction of the very problem the film tries to overcome. Johnny Guitar (which I am now tempted to call Johnny Guattari) doesn’t want to be ‘taut’; it wants to be slack. This is the problem Vienna poses in the film: she is a slack woman. By contrast, Emma, for all that her pathological resentment of Vienna’s self-determination drives her to hysterical excess, is wound up tight, a trait that sees her crippled with stiffness in an early scene as the Dancin’ Kid quicksteps her across the floor of Vienna’s saloon. Being good, then, as defined by an idea of traditional values embodied in Emma, manifests itself as being taut.
Like good gender, good genre has to be taut – and also, of course, taught. Social and critical approval rest on the reproduction of a set of rules that is nowhere written down, which is why those rules (and this is surely the lesson of modernity) are open to be reinterpreted and reinvented; hence, it would be anti-modern to suppose that rules are the expression of an innate authority, and should be binding. While Johnny Guattari is shot in garish Tru-Color, the choice it presents between these historical forces is black and white: the liberating nomadology of Vienna’s iconoclasm and the kind of free-flowing capital she represents, versus the tyrannising, rule-bound tree logic of the landed cattle barons, who deterritorialise the land by turning it into an economic resource, or so much standing reserve. The stark structure of this conflict, the tautness of this opposition, is entirely a product of the cattle barons’ confrontational refusal of Vienna’s difference, a refusal emanating automatically from their self-interests.
The demand for Johnny Guattari to be about horses and guns, then, for it to conform to an idea of genre, repeats this refusal, which is repeated again in recent criticism of the film’s ‘misogynistic’ punishment of Emma for her ‘lesbianism’ – as though female sexual difference were confined to this alone (see for example Peterson, 1996). But aside from a few tentative stereotypes (short hair, unmarried), the markers of Emma’s supposed lesbianism are at least equaled by those of an idealised femininity: she is coyly speechless, for example, around the Kid; and – unlike Vienna who prefers to wear cowboy clothes but sometimes puts on a dress, as though she were putting on drag, at moments when it suits her to perform as the weaker sex – Emma appears in nothing but dresses throughout the film. Still, if Vienna’s cross-dressing is impossible to miss, Emma does some gender bending of her own, at least figuratively, through her ‘masculine’ influence over the cattle barons and the leadership role she shares with John McIvers, the belligerent male elder played by Ward Bond.
Given the fluidity of gender markers in the film, and that so much power is vested in the characters played by the two female leads, it is little wonder that until Johnny straps on a gun some halfway through the action, his masculinity has to be asserted since it cannot be assumed: ‘There’s a lot of man in them boots’, one of the bar staff is made to say, all too pointedly, when Johnny first enters Vienna’s saloon – his comment serving not only to acknowledge Hayden’s towering height and build, but also to endorse Johnny’s fitness for hero status and to compensate for his emasculation in the presence of a woman of independent means. Since Hayden’s reputation was tarnished at the time of filming, moreover, for admitting he was a member of the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and naming names – an act he spent the rest of his life regretting – the kind of masculinity he brought to the part of Johnny was already in question. What kind of man would rat on his friends to save himself? What kind of cowboy would strum a guitar?
If the borders separating the film’s diegetic inside from the socio-political outside are porous from the start, however, the floodgates might be said to open later in the film when Emma and McIvers promise to spare the life of a boy they’ve captured, a member of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang named Turkey (Ben Cooper), if he will say that Vienna was in on the gang’s bank hold-up in Albuquerque earlier that day. Although she is innocent, Vienna urges the boy to save himself and name her; and as soon as he does so, McIvers gives the order for the boy to be hanged. Liberal audiences of the 1950s could scarcely have failed to notice the import of the scene’s allegorical condemnation of the HUAC’s punitive techniques of fear and bullying, reinforced by Bond’s casting as the pitiless judge and executioner whose authority derives from a kangaroo court. Bond, a seemingly ubiquitous Western co-star, was well known off-screen for his advocacy of extreme right-wing views – his political disposition leading him to become a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organisation that solicited the HUAC to purge Hollywood of the red menace. ‘I thought it was kind of a nice inside joke to cast Ward Bond that way’, Nicholas Ray once said (ctd in Corber, 2011: 102), but clearly Bond did not get it.
In the midst of all this generic promiscuity and textual excess, nothing could be said to be extraneous to the film except, perhaps, the horses and guns. Or, as Belmondo might have said to Denueve: It’s not about the oppression of lesbians. It is the cattle barons and the HUAC, after all, who want to contain or constrain difference understood as deviance from an inflexible distinction between American and un-American activities, where the latter might have a name or a nickname (communism) or might not yet dare to speak its name (feminism, for example). Since even the very title of Ray’s film is a misnomer (Vienna, not Johnny, is the central character, and Crawford is the film’s only real star), this loosening of the normally close-fitting relationship between a title and a work signifies (albeit, retrospectively) that the film is different from the start: different from a Western, and different from the socio-politics of the McCarthy era. But if America was in the grip of paranoia at the time of the film’s production, it was also on the cusp of unprecedented prosperity and freedom – a future that Johnny Guattari projects from out of an imagined past located somewhere in the 1890s and set in Albuquerque, although the film was shot in Sedona, Arizona.
As a kind of adult remix of the killing of the Wicked Witch of the West, Emma’s death opens the promise of a better future to come. (All those black dresses Emma wears mark her not only as the bad guy but, coupled with her hysteria, also as demonic, reducing the film’s problem to the simple order of a morality play: Kill the witch!) But, unlike Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, which beckons Dorothy back to the solace of the past, Albuquerque figures in Ray’s film as the image of a new America, the West put under erasure in preparation for the coming of suburbia. Only a year later, in Ray’s teen-angst classic Rebel Without a Cause (1955), James Dean’s tormented imitation of a young man trying to escape his body – as though he were trapped inside Mercedes McCambridge and wanted to become Joan Crawford, someone with a voice and a style of his own – would immortalise the sense of a generation’s loss of faith in the constraining values of suburban middle America; values enforced not by cattle barons, but by teachers, the police and dysfunctional parents. The West that Vienna had consigned to history, as it were, had come back to the future as the western suburbs.
Anonymous (1954) ‘[Review of] Johnny Guitar’. Variety, 5 May: 6.
Charney, Leo (1990) ‘Historical Excess: Johnny Guitar’s Containment’. Cinema Journal 29, 4: 23-34.
Corber, Robert J. (2011) Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Crowther, Bosley (1954) ‘[Review of] Johnny Guitar’. The New York Times, 28 May: 19.
Derrida, Jacques (1981) Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Godard, Jean-Luc (1985) ‘Beyond the Stars’, trans. Tom Milne, in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s—Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier. London: British Film Institute, 118-19.
Kass, Robert (1954) ‘[Review of] Johnny Guitar’. Catholic World, June: 271.
Peterson, Jennifer (1996) ‘The Competing Tunes of Johnny Guitar: Liberalism, Sexuality, Masquerade’. Cinema Journal 35, 3: 3-18.
Truffaut, François (1985) The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew. New York: Simon and Schuster.