Nicholas Ray’s 1954 classic Johnny Guitar upends nearly every convention of the traditional western. Its eponymous hero (Sterling Hayden) is a sensitive soul who wields only six strings, not a six-shooter. Johnny becomes an unwitting spectator in a town’s internal squabble over whether to allow a railroad to pass through an Arizona cattle town’s limits, and the citizens who oppose the symbol of coming civilization are portrayed as ignorant and trigger-happy. And contrary to the panoramas for which the genre is known, the vast majority of the film occurs indoors, using the restricted settings to concentrate focus on the characters’ psychological states.
The biggest aberration of the film is that its conflict, propelled by belligerent men seeking to prevent the railroad from coming to town, actually revolves around the psychosexual war between two women. The first, Vienna (Joan Crawford), owns a saloon she intends to convert into a tourist attraction by erecting an adjoining train depot. Crawford brings all her steel to the character, who’s introduced in a black blouse and slacks with a sickly green tie, immediately looking more dangerous than any of the men who come to destory her, and her sardonic smiles are so sharp they could etch glass.
Vienna becomes the repository of the entire town’s hatred for her insistence on building the depot, but her true nemesis is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a sexually repressed firebrand who resents Vienna, in part for the woman’s relationship with an outlaw, The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), whom Emma secretly loves. Aptly described by film critic B. Ruby Rich as “both a witch and witch hunter,” Emma finds her only emotional outlet in the war she manipulates the town into waging with Vienna.
Even seen today, more than 60 years after its release, Johnny Guitar still feels radical. Its subverted norms of genre and gender are rendered in vivid images that sear themselves into the brain: Johnny and Vienna standing against a painted sky; Vienna meeting a posse primed to kill her while dressed in virginal white, a statement of silent protest; Emma riding away from Vienna’s burning saloon and turning to the camera with one of the most savage, wild-eyed grins in cinematic history. The film also contains one of the most tender moments in any western, in which Johnny’s taciturn façade breaks down and he begs Vienna to lie to him and tell him that she still loves him. Her acquiescence, delivered with a stony poker face, is bitter succor.
Olive released Johnny Guitar on a serviceable Blu-ray in 2012, but their new 4K remaster easily outpaces that release as the definitive home-video edition of Nicholas Ray's film. The Trucolor images lack the stability of better processes like VistaVision or Technicolor, but the Blu-ray maximizes the hallucinatory colors of the costumes and backgrounds to the extent that even the hazy images look significantly sharper. For the first time, you can even see the dust gathered on everyone's clothes. Most importantly, Olive presents the film in its correct 1.66:1 ratio, instead of the full-frame of the prior release. Audio is similarly strong, with stable dialogue levels and well-balanced music.
The prior release's only feature, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, is ported over, and along with it come a host of new extras. Critic Geoff Andrew provides an informative commentary track that breaks down Ray's idiosyncratic visual style and the film's production. A group of critics—Miriam Bale, B. Ruby Rich, Kent Jones, and Joe McElhaney—appear in two separate video packages that tackle the film from two different perspectives, one on the film's bucking of genre traits and the other on the question of its feminism. One featurette, "Tell Us She Was One of You," explores the film's relation to the Hollywood blacklist (exiled writer Ben Maddow had to give credit to colleague Philip Yordan), and it even interviews one of the last surviving members of that blacklist, Walter Bernstein, to give an idea of what it was like to suffer the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee. There's also a brief overview of Republic Pictures, the B-movie studio that released Johnny Guitar, as well as interviews with Lightning Over Water producer Chris Sievernich and actor Tom Farrell about working with Ray toward the end of his life. Finally, the disc comes with a trailer and a booklet containing an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a longtime champion of the film.
Olive Films kicks off its Signature line in style with an essential update of one of their early Blu-rays, presenting Nicholas Ray’s acid western in all its visual splendor.