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Going for Baroque...Western Style!


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Is it a Greek drama, a Western musicale, a dark farce, an oatsy soap opera,or just a lyrical and Baroque masterpiece...this film known as "Johnny Guitar"?

 

I was happy to hear that TCM has Nick Ray's "Johnny Guitar" in its library, as this film needs to reach a wider audience.

 

In tribute to Peggy Lee's connection to this movie [as lyricist to Victor Young's score and singer of the eponymous title song] I took a revisiting gander at this surreal piece of work, by legendary director Nicholas Ray last night and was enveloped in the quirky mood and tone from start to finish. "Johnny Guitar" was based on the novel by Roy Chansor and has lush suprareal color cinematography by Harry Stradling, with catatonic, dreamlike dialogue by Philip Yordan ["How many men have you forgotten?" "How many women have you remembered?"] that aids the sense of being swept up into a whirling dervish of subterranean depths, symbolized by the many caves, tunnels et cetera in the film.

 

Set in [spoilerS AHEAD] post Civil War Arizona, "Johnny Guitar" stars Joan Crawford as Vienna, owner of the local saloon and casino, Scott Brady as her current beau, the Dancing Kid, Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar [aka Johnny Logan...notorious fastest gun west of the Pecos, but here incognito, as just a simple Guitarman], Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small, owner of the bank and just about everything else but the Dancing Kid's heart, which belongs to Vienna], assisted ably by supporting actors Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson. Royal Dano and the great Paul Fix.

 

Follow the time honored sagebrush trail with lots of false leads...Vienna contacts old flame Johnny Guitar to work at her establishment, but on his way there, he witnesses a stagecoach holdup by the Dancing Kid and his gang of four. On his arrival at the saloon, Johnny is met by Vienna and the Kid, who are both soon after confronted by the townspeople, led by the incomparably frightening Mercedes McCambridge, as a woman scorned, who is out to avenge her brother's death. Looking for all the world like a nun with a gun, in her funerary clothes, Emma leads a posse to capture the gang, after inciting mob violence with her high pitched staccato-like, rapid fire outbursts, that are are unequalled in malevolence even by today's standards. Enmity between women, is the name of the psychosis here, and it is well served by the histrionics of Crawford and McCambridge [who calls Vienna a railroad tramp] both at their most mannered best.

 

After Vienna sits tall [while tickling the ivories with the title song] against the lynch mob's entreaties to cough up the directions to the Kid's lair [which sits fairytale-like behind a waterfall] she and Turkey [a young boy gang menber, who looks like an extra from Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause"] are removed from the saloon, which is soon torched by a demonic Emma who gives new meaning to the term..."with a vengeance". With the noose around her neck, and no one but Emma salivating to do the dirty deed, Vienna is freed by the intervention of Guitarzan, and they ride to safety to the Kid's hangout. After revealing to the Kid, that the gunless Johnny is really fast draw Logan ["I never shake hands with a left handed draw."

"Smart fellow."] Emma makes a last ditch effort to get both Vienna and the Kid, ending in a shootout with the two femmes at twenty paces.

 

This high camp tribute to Lang's "Rancho Notorious" is like a mythic idea translated to film, not unlike in some respects Cocteau's updating of the Orpheus legend. Being one of Francois Truffaut's favorites, he reviewed it, at its French premiere thusly.."Never trust appearances. Beauty and profundity are not always found in the obvious traditional places; a Trucolor western from Republic that throbs with the passion of l'amour fou or whispers with an evening's delicacy." This film can be interpreted in many ways, diatribe against McCarthyism or just as a polemic, questioning the acceptance of sexual stereotyping in traditional roles in society, with the least emotional character being played by Crawford, who has a hard headed logic all her own. Whatever it is...it's one rootin' tootin' Freudian shoot-em up, with not really that much violence, but a wealth of visual and verbal stimuli to behold.

 

Opinions...is it noir? Vienna starts off wearing all black, switches to all white, then ends up in flaming red, after declaring her love for Johnny, and seeing her past five years symbolically burn up, with the burning down of her saloon.

 

P.S. Addendum Word Etymology..."Baroque".The first objects to be called baroque, were the bizarre, irregular natural pearls, so prized by collectors in the 16th and 17th centuries. Coined from "barocca" [the term describing these nacreous pearls] it also came to also mean strong, convoluted, extravagant, whimsical, and grotesque. As a style, Baroque grew out of the excesses of the Mannerist phase of the late Renaissance and has a love of imbalance and palpable sense of danger, which "Johnny Guitar" epitomizes in its expression of its grandeur, through decoration, and natural poetry of song, sound and movement [witness the Kid's energetic dance with Emma, to the accompaniment of Johnny's guitar!].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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fuster--did you write that essay down on paper before you posted it? If you didn't you have a very well ordered brain to come up with such material as you have set forth. My sincere congratulations and best wishes for you in your endeavors. You are most remarkable. :) Sue

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and do you mind me calling you that?

 

I wrote it on a Stickie after seeing the film, but did do some background checks on the part about the word Baroque.

 

Have you ever composed a post that is fairly long, right on the site fro scratch, only to have it begin erasing itself while you watch in horror?

 

Not only that...sometimes you are answering someone at length with something you've researched, and your computer freezes or crashes and you lose everything....Ka-BOOM!

 

So now I use those Stickies to compose on and they work wonderfully, since even if you crash, they stay saved and pop up when you restart.

 

At least on my computer.

 

So Elinor, thanks for your comments and have you seen this movie, and if not what are your favorite westerns, if any?

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