Johnny Guitar, the new western

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Johnny Guitar by Nicholas Ray
Republic Pictures

Arte broadcasts this spellbinding western by Nicholas Ray carried by the authoritarian presence of Joan Crawford. Become an essential classic, it took a long time to be pantheonized.

Martin Scorsese in his history of American cinema speaks of the film as follows: ” Johnny guitar is an example of a minor film that has risen to the rank of cult films. There really is no such movie! And in fact, this 1954 western signed Nicholas Ray is unlike any other, at least not the guns of the genre shaped by Ford or Hawks. If it was necessary to find him a filiation, this Johnny guitar would be the almost direct descendant of Canyon Passage by Jacques Tourneur (1946), a film whose modernity has changed the way of envisioning the conquest of the West (hence the face of cinema!). The intrigues trapped in a micro-territory hardly leave room for overlaps and settling of scores. The verb readily replaces the fist and the balls. The inner psychology springs back into the frame and holds back the action. Everything now takes place in a confined space where men and women struggle with themselves. There is certainly a fully claimed theatrical dimension. The essence of Johnny guitar takes place in the huge room of a game room lost in the middle of nowhere.

In a still wild West, the imminent arrival of the railway near the territory where Vienna (Joan Crawford) has conveniently installed his casino-saloon, arouses jealousy and envy. While a diligence attack has just taken place, the local notables, helped by the representatives of the order, try to destabilize Vienna. That’s when the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) reappears, a lonely man whose painful past will soon resurface.

If Scorsese speaks of a “minor film”, it is to better translate the willingly broke aspect of this B series, the apparent casualness of which would conform to the idea we have of a small Hollywood production of the fifties. Except that here, minimalism (the plot takes place over barely 3 days), as we have seen, is more of an intellectual approach than a stopgap. Ray, not tender with his own film from which he came out worn, has never hidden his intentions: “I had decided to violate all the rules of the western. The rebel-filmmaker, of whom it is nevertheless the second full-length film in color, thus hysterizes the colors in the manner of a melodrama, favors the emotions in the action and dezinguishes the machismo of the West by making the combat of two women (Vienna-Crawford facing Emma-McCambridge) the heart of the drama. There is certainly as much Douglas Sirk as there is Joseph von Sternberg in Johnny guitar. The young critic François Truffaut writes in Arts in 1955: “It’s a dreamy western, magical, unreal as possible, delirious. “Further,” It is The beauty and the Beast of the western, a dream of the West. “

And yet this dream was indeed a nightmare. Joan Crawford drowns the mood on the set, demands more scenes, can not see in painting his playing partner Mercedes McCambridge, in the name of a common ex-lover. The immense actress (of whom Eva Green seems to be the reincarnation) who had an affair with Ray, leads the filmmaker by boat, threatens to leave the set. Sterling Hayden, with his legendary coolness, looks down on it all, waiting for the storm to pass. “The atrocity Johnny guitar is finished, out, with abominable criticisms and a great financial success, writes disillusioned Ray to his accomplice Hanna Axmann. Nausea has been my retribution, and I’m happy for you that you weren’t there to share the pain. How can we imagine that such chaos could have engendered this moving face-to-face between Vienna and Johnny, in the semi-darkness of the saloon where both of them remember their past love. “Please, lie, tell me that you have never forgotten me, that you have always loved only me …”? How can we also imagine this outrageous and incongruous refinement possible in the middle of a primitive no man’s land which nevertheless sees Crawford in a white fairy tale dress waiting for his enemies while playing Beethoven on his piano?

This Johnny guitar literally ignites on the screen (the fire of the saloon tears the space and burns the frame forever) and finishes to carry us away with the title song cooed in fine by the soft voice of the torch singer, Peggy Lee: “Play the guitar, play it again, my Johnny. Maybe you’re cold but you’re so warm inside. I was always a fool for my Johnny. For the one they call Johnny Guitar. Play it again, Johnny Guitar… ” Unstoppable.

Philippe Garnier: “Sterling Hayden is more than the movies”

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