Sunday, July 03, 2005

Film: Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Ray, old master of Hollywood cinema, was taken for granted for a long time. Little did people see anything rebellious in his films, even though they were inhabited by deeply unadjusted and inadequate people – and even though his greatest commercial success was named “Rebel without a cause”. People failed to see the end of the movie as fitting the characters into the norms of society that they were rebelling against. Ray’s was the recognition of the energetic appearance and performing power of one
James Dean, which would, together with his early death, make him a legend.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about his 54’ film, “Johnny Guitar”. This film is, by genre, one of the first revisionist westerns. To which, I feel the need to explain what revisionist western is.

First, you have traditional westerns, as promoted by John Ford, Howard Hawks and many other earlier great directors. Some of major elements of this genre are strong, protective characters (think of John Wayne), old-fashioned, patriarchal values, honor, one romantic and idealistic view of Wild West. Perhaps the first revisionist western was Zinnemann’s “High noon” where Gary Cooper as sheriff, asked citizens for help to defend from a gang, but noone would help him. Hawks and John Wayne were so appalled by this film, that they made an answer, in form of a film “Rio Bravo”. What were they so angry for? The whole idea that sheriff would actually need to ask someone for help. It was against the core of understanding of western as a genre – and they wanted it preserved the way they liked to see it. “Rio Bravo”, of course, features a sheriff who declines help that everybody’s offering to him.

Nowadays, revisionist westerns are much more common. Their tide came with spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, featuring no-name gunmen, of a suspicious moral and honor. For one of his directorial effort, “High Plains Drifter”, Clint Eastwood received an angry letter by John Wayne himself, complaining that he misunderstood the spirit of western; that it’s not what western is all about. Of course, Eastwood actually understood the genre very good – which is why he could bring to dust its romantic cliché’s so well.

“Johnny Guitar” is a film based around society outcasts as well. One of them is Vienna, running a saloon at the outskirts of the town and hoping that the railroad expected to be build through, will bring in more business. But townsfolk want her out, led by Emma Small tortured by personal issues against Vienna, but Vienna can use her gun well enough to delay it.

Enter Johnny Logan, played by Sterling Hayden, old Vienna’s friend, hired to play guitar at the saloon. Johnny is the finest little piece of characterization: In entering sequence we see him riding toward city, looking at stagecoach robbery from the cliff, and then just riding along his own way. A scene we see in a saloon a bit later, when angry mob led by Emma arrives at saloon, is a brilliant piece of dialogue. Asked why he didn’t help the stagecoach, Johnny answers: “With what, a guitar?” Indeed, he hasn’t got a gun on himself. But some time later, we are told that this isn’t true; Johnny’s got a gun in his backpack, and actually uses it very well. To which stressed Vienna replies: “You’re still that old, gun-totting maniac.” Johnny is indeed a gun-totting maniac (rather than level-headed master of gun duels from other westerns of the time) trying to change his ways. How much he is desperate to change his ways, we realize if we backtrack in our mind to earlier parts of the movie, and recall of scenes where he acts out that he has no gun, not to get to situation to use it. Particularly, the stagecoach robbery that he doesn’t interfere with, even though he’s got a gun in his backpack and skills to use it. This cowboy will rather skip being a hero, for personal reasons.

It is one clever way Ray makes us involved with his story. He will make us recall of earlier parts of the film, and if we don’t, we’re missing a big part of it, because he won’t tell things twice. Even though his films aren’t particularly hard to watch, he fills them with symbols, moments and connections to its other parts – watching a film with head emptied leads to missing it all. Ray manipulates standard elements of the genre in an unusual way that marks his whole filmmaking opus: Johnny Guitar is, in his universe, the same as James Dean’s character from “Rebel without a cause” in his. Joan Crawford playing Vienna (social outcast as well), although extremely popular at the time, was not the prettiest actress of them all – in fact you could say that she was the ugliest – and definitely far less pretty than Mercedes McCambridge playing Emma Small.

“Johnny Guitar” was also enjoyable to watch for its versed direction and cutting. Take the scene of the first encounter of Emma and Vienna in the saloon where characters are divided in no less than five groups, including Vienna standing at the top of the stairs, Emma’s mob in the middle of the room, barmen behind the counter and Johnny and another guy all the way in the kitchen. Now, directing a scene with three characters (or groups of characters) may be a pain because one flawed cut or camera angle may make a lot of confusion and eye-grating, but when you have five groups of characters, some of them on different floor or in different room, all talking and interacting simultaneously, you have to be a master of the trade to execute the scene flawlessly. And Nicholas Ray is the master of the trade, indeed.

Only much later, Ray was recognized as one of the directors that revised the image of American cinema and influenced lots of today’s (mostly independent) directors, the best known probably Jim Jarmush, whose tutor Ray was, in his early filmmaking days; Not long before Ray is going to die of lung cancer in 1979, Wim Wenders made him an interesting dedication: A film “Lightning over water” that Ray and Wenders co-directed, and played themselves in it: an interesting story of a sick “Nicholas Ray” who tries to finish one more film before he dies, and calls “Wim Wenders” to help him finish it; This was basically a film about Nicholas Ray, great director. When Ray died before the film was edited, Wenders was so shaken up that he didn’t participate in editing the film.


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