When the Kid's gang (which includes Ernest Borgnine) decides to knock over the bank before heading to California, Emma wants just about everyone in sight on the business end of a rope. Nicolas Ray's 1954 epic was considered one of the downright strangest Westerns of all time--the women were far tougher than the men (Johnny watches on laconically during the bank robbery, not bothering with heroics), and some saw in the film a bizarre allegory for the McCarthy Red scare. A half-century later, it's still a curious, intriguing piece of moral ambiguity from a time when such a thing ostensibly didn't exist. Hayden is an enigmatic presence, and Crawford's commanding star turn is what you'd expect. --David Kronke
On the surface you have title character "Johnny Guitar"---onetime ace gunfighter, now laconic loner and wanderer who has renounced his violent past and refuses to wear his guns. He looks up an old saloon-girl love (Joan Crawford as "Vienna") only to discover a town in turmoil---both his gal and the General Good need defending...
You might think you see what's coming: Johnny, after agonized moral deliberation, straps on his guns again and rights the prevalent wrongs, possibly with the help of his lady-friend, who's ambivalent about his violent past... A la "High Noon", et al.
But NO... Which is what makes this movie such an interesting, important milestone in the Western genre. Johnny G's role in the proceedings is almost immediately negligible; he hangs around the saloon and watches his past amour Vienna first boss around her employees, then confront the angry lynch-mob that stomps in, then placate the bunch of alleged outlaws who drunkenly seek refuge from a sandstorm and proceed to tussle with the already-assembled law folk... Vienna vanquishes all foes, with Johnny making smart remarks, but doing little else, throughout. Even after the law leaves and Johnny brawls with a gang-member, all of his action is off-camera---while we see Vienna parry verbally with one outlaw inside the saloon, we hear the sounds of scuffling outside, then witness the defeated bad guy come stumbling through the swinging doors. (Now WHEN has a Western EVER deprived us of a good old-fashioned street-brawl?? Aside from gunfights, that's the next best excuse for action.)
Johnny and Vienna DO kiss and make up, of course. But on the morning after, even though Vienna IS wearing a dress rather than the slacks we first saw her in, the two immediately head to the town bank, where Vienna again plays an active role in the goings-on while Johnny waits passively outside... He eventually does strap on the guns again, but it's certainly a minor plot point by that time: The final obligatory shoot-out has nothing at all to do with him.
Joan Crawford seems absolutely WIRED in her performance here, especially in the first half of the film, before the more conventional chasing/lynch-mob stuff starts. The early scenes in the saloon are especially fascinating and tension-filled because of Crawford's weirdly quivering intensity. She later regretted taking the role ("I should have had my head examined"), but time has proven her wrong---both she and the film are truly worthy of the cult status they've achieved.