Newly restored in technophile-buzzword-of-the-moment 4K, the enduring, deeply peculiar cult classic Western Johnny Guitar is back on cinema screens this month.
And it’s aged pretty well. Director Nicholas Ray – most fondly remembered for Rebel Without a Cause – had little interest in the orthodoxy of John Ford or Howard Hawks Westerns, crafting a meandering plot which devours all of the expected tropes – the down-on-its-luck saloon, the retired gunfighter, the hungry kid doomed to come a cropper, the economic transformation effected by the railroad – and regurgitates them in unexpected ways. Landlady Vienna, played with career-best intensity by Joan Crawford, by that point a faded star, repeatedly faces off against the vile Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who is Hell-bent on destroying her and her saloon. While everybody’s busy feuding, we’re treated to a close-up of a teetering shot glass sees it snatched out of the air by a hand, which we are about to discover belongs to Johnny Guitar, a character-introduction shot that would remain unequalled for coolness until 1962’s Dr. No. Johnny Guitar is portrayed by Sterling Hayden with an attitude that could best be described as cryptic. Either way, he’s “hot” on the six-string, even hotter on the six-shooter, and gets the lion’s share of one-liners in one of those clever-clever scripts that’s just straining to make every line a one-liner.
Over the course of a disjointed, meandering plot, we discover more of Johnny Guitar’s past with Vienna, meet a pack of not-so-bad outlaws whose number includes a young Ernest Borgnine, and are treated to seemingly endless horse chases. The second half of the picture, which ditches the play-like qualities of the first half – limited locations and focussed dialogue – and morphs into an almost straightforward Western, isn’t nearly as interesting. But things come together for a damned exciting finale, and there’s always something to enjoy, between the many costume changes for Crawford, the occasional philosophical pretensions, the tragedy-soaked romance between Vienna and Johnny, and the weird colour which anticipates the acid Westerns of the 60s and 70s. In 4K the picture isn’t improved all that much – it’s still grainy, and there isn’t a wealth of detail to be discovered in the frame – and neither is the sound that astonishing, though the score is nice. But it’s good, in any case, to know it’s been restored, and, since the picture has often proved difficult to find on DVD, aficionados and newcomers alike ought to book themselves a ticket to one of the odder classic films they’re likely to experience.
Released in a new 4K restoration, Paramount Pictures’ Johnny Guitar will return to cinemas across the UK from 6 May, opening at BFI Southbank and selected sites nationwide.