The new Olive Films Olive Signature collection chooses perfectly in launching its DVD and Blu-ray releases with two '50s Westerns that are much more than shoot-em-up kiddie matinee fare. The 1954 Joan Crawford film "Johnny Guitar," which is our current topic, is an apt predecessor of the 1955 film "Rebel Without A Cause" by "Guitar" director Nicholas Ray. Our focus tomorrow shifts to the equally deep 1952 classic "High Noon" starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
As an aside, the spectacular (discussed at the end of this review) extras in both "Guitar" and "Noon" are a notable part of what distinguishes Signature releases from the lost treasures and other drool-worthy titles in the main Olive catalog.
The following YouTube clip of the SPOILER-LADEN theatrical trailer for "Guitar" emphasizes the good sizzle over the even better substance of the film.
The elements that make adult Western "Guitar" Signature worthy are the aforementioned attributes that earn it the titles of "adult" and "feminist" Western, associated heavy symbolism in color and narration, having Hollywood royalty Joan Crawford star with fellow box office legends Sterling Hayden as the titular crooner/gunslinger and Best Actress winner for "All The King's Men" Mercedes McCambridge as the sexually repressed (and possibly bisexual) proper lady Emma Small, and the restoration of "Guitar" looking and sounding so amazing on Blu-ray that it does justice to the red rock scenery of the Sedona, Arizona shooting location.
Crawford stars as tough-as-nails saloon owner Vienna, regarding whom it is suggested spent a great deal of time on her back to raise the money required to get her business on its feet. The reasoning of this 19th century entrepreneur is that the relatively imminent expansion of the railroad literally to her formerly remote front door will bring the business to her.
The "crimes" of Vienna including her being a strong and independent woman in a strongly male-dominated society, having a relationship with an ambiguous amount of closeness with the Dancing Kid and a related triangle with ambiguous aspect with Emma, and welcoming the Kid and his gang that claim to be silver miners but are suspected of being outlaws into her business. This long list of offenses provide the catalyst for Emma and wealthy landowner John McIvers to use every arguable excuse to literally or figuratively come gunning for Vienna and to fabricate a rationale if none exist.
As an aside, the web verifies the sense from the clear animosity that Crawford and McCambridge direct at each other that Bette Davis is the first choice for the role of Emma; The story goes that Davis wanted too much money and that second choice Barbara Stanwyck also passed on the chance to battle Crawford on (and almost certainly off) screen. The expertly written insightful booklet in the Signature release shares both that Crawford and McCambridge do battle off-screen and that Hayden and that cast and crew side with McCambridge.
The fictional drama that sets "Guitar" in motion is a stage coach robbery in which the brother of Emma is killed; this loss and the aforementioned resentments bring Emma, McIvers, and the Marshal to Vienna's in the wake of an even more dramatic entrance of our titular character. Although the stated purpose of the newcomer for being there is to entertain the customers, it soon becomes clear that Vienna summons him based on their shared history and on his skill as a gunfighter.
The Old West elements continue with Vienna facing an effective order to be out of town by sundown, a daring daytime bank robbery, a pursuing posse, a lynching, a few shootouts, etc. Anyone even remotely familiar either with Ray or "Guitar" know that all of this is merely the outer layer of the savory onion.
A coerced betrayal based on a false promise provides commentary by a blacklisted writer (who uses a front) who contributes to the "Guitar" script, the aforementioned history of Johnny and Vienna and a scene between the two is very reminiscent of Ilsa and Rick from "Casablanca," the unconventional reversals of the white hats and the black hats, a highly symbolic barrier, etc all show both why Americans who come expecting non-stop gun fights and little dialog are disappointed and Europeans embrace "Guitar" enough to have it inspire the New Wave directors.
A simpler way of understanding this is that the emphasis in this oater is much more on opera than horse. The stirring soundtrack (which makes great use of BD), the majestic scenery, and the flowing white dress and other costumes of the highly expressive Crawford evoke a stronger sense of the Met than the multiplex.
The plethora of Turner Classic Movie-quality extras in "Guitar" extend beyond the aforementioned booklet. Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese starts things with a Robert Osborne-worthy introduction to the film. Other features include a panel of film critics discussing the work, a short film on the McCarthy element, and the aforementioned SPOILER-LADEN theatrical trailer. Aside from being great retro fun, the non-enhanced trailer perfectly illustrates (no pun intended) the value of watching even '50s-era films that make great use of technicolor and related technologies in Blu-ray.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Guitar," Crawford, or Ray is strongly encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.