At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

JOHNNY GUITAR (Olive Films)

By • Nov 23rd, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes


Until fairly recently, Olive has been releasing a charming potpourri of uneven title acquisitions such as THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS which, admittedly and unapologetically, now occupies a cherished position on my ‘50s horror shelf. But more recently they’ve engineered some releases that place them in the company of the big boys such as (yes) The Criterion Collection.

Most notably are a dual release of Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR and Fred Zinneman’s HIGH NOON, knowing full well, and emphasizing in their compelling supplementals, that these films were, on some level, meditations about the dreaded Black List that, like a Grim Reaper, consumed and dispensed with much of the entertainment industry in the late ‘40s and the ‘50s.

JOHNNY GUITAR came out in 1954, the same year that Elia Kazan foisted upon us his bullshit rationale for naming names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee via ON THE WATERFRONT. In that superb film, Marlon Brando’s character rats out his union buddies because his burgeoning moral conscience tells him they are wrong as well as criminal. A glorified informant. JOHNNY GUITAR has emotionally twisted Mercedes McCambridge swaying public opinion and fomenting violence against a lone land-owner who doesn’t share her beliefs, played by an equally dominant Joan Crawford. But JG also co-stars Sterling Hayden, who in real life named names just like Kazan, and didn’t rationalize his actions for too long before he came to loathe himself for what he’d done, practically abandoned his profession, and rarely let an interview slip by without castigating himself. His presence here is a flag being waved so that we can enter the subtext. In addition, one of the supplements is called “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and JOHNNY GUITAR.”

There are other worthy features: “JOHNNY GUITAR: A Feminist Western?” certainly deserves consideration, whether the film is feminist or just a perversely bizarre case of gender-reversal in a genre seldom given to such things. “JOHNNY GUITAR: A Western Like No Other.” That’s certainly true. The color was equally surreal on the earlier DVD release, and I may even prefer the DVD version in terms of color, which was maybe 10% more garish – the DVD was replicating TruColor, whereas the BluRay was going more for true color – but it’s not a deciding factor in terms of which disc to own. All these extras leave one no choice: this is the one that graces either your Western shelf or NickRay niche.

Crawford owns an empty, strikingly designed casino, and is waiting patiently for the railroad to be built near her establishment. McCambridge wants the place burnt to the ground, and its proprietor hung from a tree. We learn from the supplementals that Ms. Crawford may well have wished such a fate on Ms. McCambridge. She had nothing to worry about. Though slightly over-the-hill, she still completely overpowered McCambridge, whose career highlights outside of this were a sexually ambiguous leather-clad creature in Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, and one of the devil’s voices in THE EXORCIST. Sterling Hayden, tall and baffled by the whole scenario, seems mystified throughout, as well he should have been. It’s not only one of the weirdest westerns ever made, but one of the most bizarre films period!

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