christopher funderburg


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Johnny Guitar

I’m going to write less about Johnny Guitar for the stupid reason that I don't have very much to say about it. Ray's legend hinges on the singularity of this film in many ways - even more so than Rebel without a Cause, this is his signature film. The self-parody, the stylization, the poetic and baroque qualities (even those elusive expressionistic flourishes) that make Ray unique and compelling are most on display in this film. All the bets are riding on this film: this is the ultimate expression of Ray's specific artistic vision.

But to me, the film appears to be exactly what it is: the awkward and frequently pathetic result of a troubled production. The stylistic hiccups and intellectual elisions aren't the result of a deliberate strategy employed by Ray or even the intended effect of the film's real driving force, Joan Crawford. Everything unique and compelling about the movie is result of indifferent actors, on-set tantrums, last-second changes, poorly-planned script revisions, cowed producers and callow agents. The anxiety-riddled director charged with shepherding it through to completion hardly seems the over-riding factor in creation of the film. By anyone's account, the thrifty Republic Pictures would've pulled the plug on the disastrous production if the $2 1/2 million budget wasn't roughly 50 times what they were regularly spending on Westerns and the amount already spent on the film enough to bankrupt them if not recouped.

And there's no indication that Ray saw the film as the crowning achievement of his career - he tried to quit the film six weeks before the production ended and referred the finished movie as "the atrocity Johnny Guitar." Joan Crawford, the temperamental star whose bratty behavior made life a living hell for Ray and determined the shape and tone of the film, had even less kind words for the movie. She followed up petty digs at co-stars Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge with the statement, "There is no excuse for making such a bad movie." Only after the Cahiers du Cinema critics had been championing the film for years, did anyone involved seem to change their tune. The initial critical reaction was almost uniformly negative and, again, only did the influence of Truffaut, Godard, etc. turn the tide. It's hard to blame Ray for his about-face - what artist would continue to disparage his own work in the face of critical commendation? Plus, it was a financial success upon release, so both bases are then covered: money and respect.

The story of the production is pretty straight-forward, Joan Crawford was brought in at great cost by Republic Pictures to make a film. For her, the production would be somewhat of a comeback after a shaky stretch in her career. For Republic, it would mean an opportunity to dabble in the big leagues. Ray was brought in to direct a cookie-cutter script in the process of being re-written by black-listed writer front-man Philip Yordan. Because of Yordan's position posing as a front for other writers, the authorship of the final script is somewhat in question (Yordan made confusing statements in which he seemed to indicate that he didn't write it while simultaneously expressing indignanty at the suggestion he hadn't written it), but there's no doubt Yordan specialized in delivering liberal-minded genre pics written in imitation of hits like High Noon and Day the Earth Stood Still. At some point early in the production, the bad decision to hire Mercedes McCambridge to play the villain was made.

McCambridge was married to a producer/director named Fletcher Merkle. Unfortunately for the production, Merkle had recently spurned the romantic advances of Crawford in favor of McCambridge. I've never seen a photo of the guy, but he's got to be ugly, right? Because those are two harsh-looking women.  Anyhoo, McCambridge has a long monologue that Ray filmed early on. Apparently, the cast and crew went fucking nuts for her performance of speech and applauded and hooted and whatnot. Ernest Borginine and Royal Dano were there, so I imagine the hooting and hollering for McCambridge was loud and gravel-y and totally awesome-sounding. During the applause, Ray glanced over his shoulder: in the distance, Crawford was watching from a hillside. The next day, McCambridge's clothes were found destroyed and Crawford demanded the ending of the movie be changed so that her character would be the one to kill McCambridge. Hopefully, the prop guys made very careful to be sure she didn't smuggle in a real gun for the filming.

To make the new ending coherent, the roles of Crawford and her co-star Sterling Hayden were mixed together - he was the one that originally killed McCambridge, so to make the ending work, certain ideas and plotting had to be reconnoitered. The masculine attributes of Crawford are a hallmark of the film, but Ray hated the idea. He thought Crawford was "nuts" for suggesting it and balked at her idea to play the "Clark Gable role" in the story. So, right there, one of the signatures of the film can't possibly be credited to the director. Ray also apparently resisted the (muddled) idea coming out of Yordan, Crawford and the producers to make the film more of a gender-reversed Casablanca combined with High Noon. That seems like a go-to trick for self-deception with troubled productions: hey, don't worry, you know what else was a disastrous production with constant hasty rewrites? Casablanca! That was a HUGE hit. And we're making a movie like Casablanca! But a western!

But what is there is to really say about the movie? There's no denying that it has a "off" feel - it's frequently awkward and stilted with a lot of lines and scenes that feel like placeholders or inexplicably attenuated. The dialog is a mix of clichés straight out of the "Western-o-matic" and attempts at poetry that only have expressivity because the rest of the dialog is so banal and awful. But let's be clear again, nothing about the dialog is even so irregular - if you showed this film to an educated audience that didn't know any better, they'd never describe the film as excessively stylized or expressionistic. Same goes for the visual style which really doesn't have any distinctive component other than some of the costumes (especially of the posse and Crawford) and an avoidance of the color blue.

In Part I, I wrote that the Cahiers critics would never thoughtlessly abuse a term like expressionist and the crucial word there is "thoughtlessly." So much of Johnny Guitar's reputation is built on Truffaut intentionally abusing the word "realism" in reference to the film. To Truffaut, the film contains "the realism of words and poetic insights, much like Cocteau." That bit of criticism is, of course, an outlandish gesture on the part of Truffaut - suggesting that something explicitly rooted in fantasy (like Cocteau) is an example of "realism" is a deliberate move to provoke the reader (and in Truffaut's case, la grande presse). But his meaning is clear enough and he says it explicitly later in the same essay: "Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns." To Truffaut, it's romantic, poetic and weird - it has the exaggerated sense of reality exuded by a fairy tale.

In fact, Truffaut recommended the dubbed version be watched in place of the subtitled - the film would be best appreciated with the weirdness heightened by a grade-A hunk of American man-meat like Sterling Hayden referring to people as "monsieur." For his part, Hayden is extremely terrible in the film. He's no great shakes as an actor to begin with (although Huston used him perfectly in The Asphalt Jungle) and he's clearly utterly disinterested in his role as the titular gunslinger. Many critics make a point to mention his subpar work as though there's something remarkable about a talentless drunk half-assing it, but Hayden's performance is the like the film itself: it's not weird, it's bad. That's really the problem here, Ray's film is not in any way comparable to Cocteau in the sense that Beauty and the Beast is the result of filmmaker intentionally pursuing certain artistic goals that are explicitly poetic, romantic and strange. Johnny Guitar is the result of two actresses that hate each other trying to upstage the other, an alcoholic actor stumbling through cheesy attempts at poetic dialog, a director so sick with anxiety that he threw up every morning on the way to set while mentally checking out of the filming and a studio without the option of putting the hobbled production out of its misery.

That's not weird, that's bad.

Second Chances: Nicholas Ray continue on Thursday, 8/6 with Part III (of IV): featuring Bogart and Ray reteaming for Knock on Any Door, my favorite Nick Ray thus far They Live by Night and a hapless Chirstopher Plummer with a massively fat Burl Ives inWind Across the Everglades.

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