What a film!
Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar was released in the United States in 1954 to limited acclaim. However, when it made its way across the sea, European audiences saw Johnny Guitar for what it was. French New Wave filmmakers revered this eccentric western, with Francois Truffaut stating that “anyone who didn’t like it, should never be permitted in a cinema again”. Strong words indeed.
Other filmmakers have clearly followed Truffaut in reverence. Watching Johnny Guitar, you can see the seeds that became Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, as the opening half hour unfolds in a single space, with a play-like attention to character and dialogue. Martin Scorsese provides an introduction for this new Blu-ray. He mentions certain scenes that are unusually put together, the strength of the McCarthyism influencing the plot, and the incredible uses of setting and colour.
Vienna (Joan Crawford) runs a bar on the outskirts of a town soon to be reached by a new railway. The local townspeople are nervous of the influx of people the trains will bring, and they decide to project the blame for this fear on Vienna. They are led by Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a puritanical, oppressed woman, who aims to bring Vienna down at any cost. Vienna is supported by a party of outlaws, led by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), and a hired musician known as Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden).
Subtext runs thickly through this film. Feminism, of course, with two women driving the plot, that much is clear. The real strength of it, however, is the way it transplants the McCarthy era trials to the old west. As the posse that follows Emma gets stuck in their quest, they adopt the black clothing normally worn by villains. We are shown images that are both common in westerns but composed in a way to suggest the burning at the stake of women falsely accused. The oppression that pushes forward Emma’s maniacal obsession, and the ongoing association between Joan Crawford and the LGBTQ+ community adds to the subtext. It all comes together to make Johnny Guitar utterly impossible to look away from.
This new Blu-ray release from Eureka includes a selection of interviews. These are all brilliantly informative and help to place the film in context, whilst adding some interesting background on the production and the difficulties faced. There is also a booklet featuring essays, and a transcript of an interview with director Nicholas Ray.
It’s worth noting that despite Johnny Guitar being a female led western, none of these bonus features allow analysis from women. The only exception is the interview with Susan Ray – spouse of Nicholas Ray from 1969-79, frequent collaborator and filmmaker in her own right. In this day and age, it seems a shame that women critics and writers haven’t been given the opportunity to reflect on the two leads considering the subject matter. That said, the features themselves are well presented and worth watching. The only other minor criticism is the lack of subtitles for the bonus features, which makes accessibility a problem for some viewers.
This is an incredible film, and one that will sit proudly amongst the others in the Eureka Masters of Cinema range.
- Limited Edition Hardbound Slipcase [3000 copies]
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration of the original film elements, framed in the film’s originally intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Brand new audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
- Brand new introduction by critic Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall
- Brand new video piece by Tony Rayns
- Brand new video essay by David Cairns
- Brand new interview with Susan Ray
- Archival introduction to Johnny Guitar by Martin Scorsese
- A LIMITED EDITION 60-page collector’s book featuring new essays on the making of Johnny Guitar and on female gunslingers in the western genre, both by western expert Howard Hughes; an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum; and archival writing and ephemera [3000 copies]
- All extras subject to Change
Johnny Guitar will be released by Eureka on their Masters of Cinema range on Limited Edition Blu-ray on September 20th.