Joan Crawford made many great movies in her career and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar was easily her best one.
Crawford stars of Vienna, the proprietor of a successful saloon in the Arizona territory. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) is a local cattle baron’s daughter and is fiercely envious of Vienna for her independence. Local outlaw The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang are in the area. It’s rumored that The Dancin’ Kid and Vienna were an item in the past. When a stagecoach is robbed, suspicion is placed on the Kid and his gang. Emma, seeing a chance to see her hated rival out of the picture, rouses a posse to get her and the Kid’s gang thrown out. The posse gives, Vienna, The Dancin’ Kid, his gang, and another outlaw by the name of Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) 24 hours to leave.
Johnny Guitar is an amazing movie. Crawford gives her very best performance and Mercedes McCambridge is great as her rival. Nicholas Ray’s direction is amazing. Directors such as Francois Truffaut and Pedro Almodovar were fans of the film and snuck tributes to it in their works. Also, the film is one gigantic middle finger aimed at Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC.
Emma Small is an analogue for McCarthy. She riles up the crowd to go after Vienna because she had a past association with a now unsavory character… not so different than McCarthy going after people that joined the Communist Party before the Cold War. The film was secretly written by Ben Maddow, a blacklisted writer who wrote his experiences into Vienna dealing with Small’s attacks. In a delicious but of irony, Ray tricked notable anti-communist actor Ward Bond into playing a member of the posse.
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