McCambridge Does McNasty
I'm not one for reading more into a movie than there is; I tend to look at a movie at how entertaining it is first and foremost. But you have to say that "Johnny Guitar" whilst an entertaining western is a movie which screams out hidden depths. Yes there is a storyline about a stage robbery and the residents of the local town wanting to run Vienna out of her home, the saloon she has built on the outskirts but that is not what the movie is really about. Nope this is a movie about hatred and jealousy between two alpha females battling over who controls the men around them. Some may say there is an element of female attraction to this, that there is some primal attraction between the women but I see that as a step too far, nope for me this is about two dominant women clashing.
Having built herself a saloon on the outskirts of a town Vienna (Joan Crawford - Rain) is hoping that when the train line is built nearby it will lead to her building her own town. But the town's folk do not want Vienna or her saloon, especially cattle baron Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who takes particular objection to her. When a stagecoach is robbed, Emma leads the men from the town to Vienna's to arrest the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang, who they suspect of the robbery, and if Emma has her way Vienna as well. But with an old friend Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden - Nine to Five) having shown up Vienna stands strong against Emma and her lynch mob.
So on face value the storyline to "Johnny Guitar" is quite familiar as following the robbery of the stagecoach the townsfolk basically head to Vienna's in search of those behind the crime. It's not something new, this sort of storyline has been used in numerous movies and so has the extra storyline of Johnny Guitar showing up at Vienna's an old flame who was a fearless gunfighter but has semi retired. As such there is the messy love triangle as Vienna and Johnny still have feelings whilst the Dancin' Kid also has feelings for Vienna and his gang don't take kindly to Johnny showing up on the scene. It's all very routine and if all that was to "Johnny Guitar" it would be a western which struggles to be average.
But that's not all there is because of the deeper context to it all as we have local cattle baron Emma not taking kindly to Vienna and is looking for an excuse to get rid of her even if it means killing her. Why does she dislike Emma, well it's suggested that she has a thing for the Dancin' Kid but the truth is that these are two strong women who dominate the men around them. The men who work in Vienna's saloon feel that she is more of a man than many men and Emma bosses the men who go after the stage robbers, even dominating the town sheriff. All of which means is that it is a battle to be top dog with Emma's hatred of Vienna boiling over as she will do absolutely anything to kill her, from forcing people to lie through to doing the deed herself.
It actually makes for some surprisingly powerful stuff and whilst you expect a strong performance from Joan Crawford who is both sexy and domineering as Vienna it is Mercedes McCambridge who is a revelation. You get a real sense of hatred pouring through Emma's veins end there is a real vindictive evilness about how she goes after Vienna, delighting when it seems she is going to rid the town of her rival. It even borders on the psychotic as the storyline wends its way to the big action climax.
So strong are the performances of Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge that they put all the men in the shade including Sterling Hayden who plays Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady who plays the Dancin Kid'. Even the reliable Ward Bond is overshadowed by the diminutive Mercedes McCambridge although as per usual Ernest Borgnine steals a few scenes as one of the Kid's gang Bart Lonergan who hates Johnny as much as Emma hates Vienna.
What is surprising is that "Johnny Guitar" is a very limited movie with very few locations, we see inside Vienna's saloon but never beyond the bar and the kitchen. There is a scene at a bank and the Kid's hideaway up in the hills but that is really it yet the limitations don't ruin things. In fact the limited locations aid in making things more intense especially a dramatic scene which sees Vienna's saloon burnt down, a scene which even now is quite spectacular.
What this all boils down to is that if you watch "Johnny Guitar" to be entertained by a western story the chances are you will finish it feeling slightly disappointed because it's a very routine story. But if you look at the deeper context and the rivalry between two dominant women and it suddenly becomes good especially with Mercedes McCambridge delivering a scene stealing performance as the evil Emma.