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U.S., 1954
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden
Screenplay by Philip Yordan, Ben Maddow
Approx. 110 min. DCP.

“How many men have you forgotten?” “As many women as you remember.” In a dusty Arizona town, Joan Crawford’s pants-wearing, gun-toting saloon owner (“Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?”) stands to rake in the dough when the railroad comes through. But when the stage is robbed and a rancher murdered, the townspeople ready a noose for her more-than-friend The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), with insanely jealous cattle baroness Mercedes McCambridge (years later the voice of the Devil in THE EXORCIST) hell-bent on having Crawford join him. Enter Joan’s old flame Sterling Hayden, as the eponymous Johnny, who, despite preferring guitar-play over gun-play — and up against bad guys like Ernest Borgnine and Ward Bond — does what a man’s gotta do. Nick Ray’s baroque, emotionally tormented Western, photographed in “gorgeous Trucolor by Consolidated” (and looking better than it ever deserved in this new 4K restoration), bursts at the seams with sexual tension and anti-McCarthy allegory. American reviewers scratched their heads (British critic Gavin lambert deemed it one of the silliest films of the year), but it was immediately embraced by the young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma — among them future directors Eric Rohmer (“Ray is the poet of love and violence”), Jean-Luc Godard (“here is something which exists only in cinema”), and François Truffaut (“dream-like, magical, delirious… the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST of the Western”). High praise indeed for a Republic Pictures oater!

“While JOHNNY GUITAR is an allegory of the witch-hunt mentality of America in the early 1950s—characters are falsely accused; mobs rise up against outsiders—far more provocatively the film is also about a love that could not speak its name. Despite its misleading title, JOHNNY GUITAR is about an undeclared relationship between two masculinized women vying for control of men and of a community. Part of the continuing allure of this gargoyle of a movie is in what it cannot confront, the “unnatural” attraction of Emma for her archrival. Emma’s fanatical, deranged, incoherent hatred for Vienna certainly resembles that of a spurned lover, and because her feelings cannot be declared, the character’s fury is intensified… JOHNNY GUITAR is an overstuffed allegory about witch hunts and sexual repression, and an essential 1950s oddity. This giddy, gnarled western is a treasured example of Hollywood-style cinéma maudit.” – Foster Hirsch


“JOAN CRAWFORD AND STERLING HAYDEN GIVE TWO OF THE STRONGEST PERFORMANCES EVER FILMED! Hayden has the coolest delivery in classic Hollywood, and it clashes gloriously with the overwhelming heat of Crawford’s ferocious stillness and blowtorch stare.”
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“MAGNIFICENTLY BIZARRE! Take a chance and surrender to the most deliriously weird Western ever made.”
– Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out (New York)

“ONE OF THE CINEMA’S GREAT OPERATIC WORKS! Convulsive and passionate, filled with bold, stylistic strokes!”
– Martin Scorsese

– Geoff Andrew, Time Out (London)

"Dream-like, magical, delirious… the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST of the Western.”
– François Truffaut

– Leonard Maltin

Film Forum