Cult Movie: Johnny Guitar plays its own offbeat Western tune

Joan Crawford's captivating performance dominates Johnny Guitar
Ralph McLean

Johnny Guitar

AS highly strung, faintly unhinged, borderline surreal westerns go, Johnny Guitar is up there with the very best.

An oddball psychological drama dressed up as a gun-toting frontier adventure, it's got Joan Crawford at her most intense as Vienna, a saloon owner with a shady past who calls on an old lover (Sterling Hayden), the guitar-slinging gunman of the title, to see off some unfriendly locals who have falsely accused her of a series of local robberies.

The very antithesis of the wide open spaces ethos of the traditional American Western, it's an intense, feverish fantasy that boasts a unique atmosphere so wild and heady it threatens to capsize the whole film at times.

Director Nicholas Ray's deliberately offbeat offering left mainstream audiences mostly perplexed when it first appeared in all its colourful glory in 1954.

It was probably too much to take in for movie-goers more used to the straight down the line paeans to the power of nature that masters of the genre like Howard Hawks and John Ford mostly delivered. Even today, it remains a very different proposition to the classic western.

Watching it via the freshly released limited edition Blu-ray on Eureka Entertainment, I can happily report however that it's lost none of its power to engage and entertain with the passing of time.

Shrugged off as an oddity by US critics it may have been, but European cinema buffs loved it and it's easy to see why. Small in scale and mostly shot indoors it feels as much a foreshadowing of the French New Wave movement as it does an example of the Western tradition.

There's a barely restrained hysteria lurking under the surface that suggests everything might just be about to explode at any minute and a stylishness in that brashly beautiful use of colour that screams camp sensibility as opposed to macho cliché.

There's also that stunning central performance from Joan as Vienna to consider of course. Sensual, sexy and tough as hell she's that rare thing, a very strong female fronting a mainstream film in 1954.

She's not alone on that front either. Mercedes McCambridge turns in an equally strong and iconic performance as the repressed Emma Small, the woman who sets about trying to bring down Vienna and her plans for a fancy new saloon in town.

If one strong-willed woman in a leading role was tough enough for mainstream Hollywood to stomach then the sight of two on the same screen must have been serious cause for concern.

As the singing gunslinger who rolls into town Sterling Hayden is typically strong and dynamic and Ray imbues every image with an eye popping panache all his own.

Released as part of their ongoing Masters Of Cinema series, this new edition from Eureka boasts a full 4K restoration of the print in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, a ton of interesting archival material and a 60-page booklet to seal the deal.

Quite unlike anything that came before or since, Johnny Guitar continues to dance to its own merry tune, which is something cinema lovers the world over should rejoice about.

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