Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray.  Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say?  This western is unlike any other I know.  Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right.  That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us.  Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?

You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings:  the women do the heavy lifting.  Or the lesbian barely-subtext:  Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).  Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey.  Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.

There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna.  He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of.  That’s cause to hang ’em both!  The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang.  He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist,  They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal.  Ah, just a kid.  What does he know?  Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck:  he couldn’t save them both, could he?  It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.

Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine).  When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays.  When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot.  Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?”  The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now.  It’s the first time I ever felt important.”  Vienna has that effect on men.

Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one.  Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan.  After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.”  Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film.  He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play.  That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town.  Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene.  He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.

And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.

Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash.  She’s in good with the railroad management.  Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

August 14, 2012

A spaghetti western courtesy of Sergio Leone, made in 1968, after he became known in the USA with his Fistful trilogy and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Wikipedia reports that Fonda was not sure he should take the job, but his friend Eli Wallach urged him to, saying “You’ll have the time of your life!”  It’s not hard to feel that Fonda and Jason Robards are enjoying themselves, maybe enjoying themselves a little bit too much, as if they’re playing!

I liked the film a lot, the rituals of the violence, the politics, the ‘realism’ of the grungy, beaten-up looking people (not common in westerns in 1968!) and the music too.  It’s like a grand epic opera, without the dramatic punch.  Too much fun, too stylized, too obviously an homage to the great westerns of the past.  It’s almost like a meta-western, the western you would make after studying and researching all the westerns ever made in the USA, which is something I believe Leone did.

Fonda is cast against type as Frank, the villain, a real cold sadist, and his blue eyes and clean-shaven face reflect his sociopathic nature instead of down-home folksiness.  This was radical for the time!  And the film takes a ‘revisionist’ view of the West, although I’m not sure if it was ahead of or just behind the scholarly curve on that.  Instead of a West peopled by self-reliant individualists, we have one developed by rapacious and murderous railroad tycoons.  In one scene, Frank, and his boss, Morton, have a chat in Morton’s opulent rail car.  He’s a cripple, slowly dying of tuberculosis of the bone, and his dream is to build his railroad to the Pacific so he can finally see that ocean.  He finds Frank sitting at his desk, and asks him, “How does it feel to be behind that desk, Frank?”  Frank, a rough character, but a quick study in the ways of capitalism, replies, “As good as holding a gun, but more powerful.

Frank is pursued by a man known only as Harmonica (he plays one), and the shot below is typical of those establishing tension in the ritualistic gunfights.

Eventually, “on the point of dying,” we learn the mystery of Harmonica, and what drives him on his revenge quest.

Claudia Cardinale is the beautiful widow who knows that a tub of hot water can wash away just about any bad feeling, not to mention the smell of filthy men she has had to sleep with.  Speaking to her, Cheyenne (Robards), delivers the improbable lines, “You remind me of my mother.  She was the biggest whore in Almeida.  Whoever my father was, for an hour, or a month, he must have been very happy.

Morton, the greedy railroader, had his own ideas of the saving qualities of water, but his dream of the Pacific was ended by his death in a muddy desert puddle after his violent plans to evict the widow from her land went awry.


The good old days!

May 5, 2010

Loved this show as a kid.  Certainly, this is one of the most memorable sequences in popular TV.