Johnny Guitar [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (22nd October 2021).
The Film

Top 10 Film Award (Best Film): Nicholas Ray (nominated) - Cahiers du Cinéma, 1955
National Film Registry (winner) - National Film Preservation Board, 2008

Vienna (Berserk's Joan Crawford) owns a casino and saloon on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town. She has no paying customers, but she does not need them at the moment. She is counting on the railroad coming through the mountains and bringing progress with it. It is no surprise that she has made enemies with the locals, particularly big landowners John McIvers (The Quiet Man's Ward Bond), spinster Emma Small (99 Women's Mercedes McCambridge), and any others they can rile up and scare with the notion of invaders building on all of their grazing land. The fact that she also keeps company with "secret silver mine" prospectors and suspected stage coach robbers "The Dancin' Kid" (The China Syndrome's Scott Brady) and his gang – scheming Bart (Marty's Ernest Borgnine), tubercular Corey (If He Hollers, Let Him Go!'s Royal Dano), and young greenhorn Turkey (The Outcast's Ben Cooper) – does not ease tensions, particularly when Emma's brother is killed in the latest robbery and Vienna stands her ground when McIvers and Emma bring in the marshal (This Gun for Hire's Frank Ferguson) to arrest her as an accomplice. Into this battlefield arrives Johnny Guitar (The Long Goodbye's Sterling Hayden), hired by Vienna to entertain the coming crowds, seemingly having given up his "gun crazy" lifestyle as Johnny Logan.

Insulted by Vienna's defiance, McIvers makes a law that gambling is not allowed outside the town limits and gives her and The Dancin' Kid an ultimatum to leave in twenty-four hours. Vienna pays off her workers, fires Johnny, bids The Dancin' Kid and his gang farewell, and plans to stay behind. When she and Johnny realize that the love they once shared is still there, she rethinks her choices and travels to town to withdraw all of her money from the bank; unfortunately, The Dancin' Kid and his gang have decided to go out with a bang and rob the bank at the same time, giving Emma and McIver the ammunition not only to rid themselves of Vienna and The Dancin' Kid but to hang them for murder.

Sounding on paper like a typical studio western, particularly at a time when the genre with covert critique of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist, Johnny Guitar evolved during production out of the Crawford's ego and her seemingly one-sided feud with McCambridge in conjunction with director Nicholas Ray's studio mandate to "keep Joan happy" into a very singular and stimulating work (the film is an early example of credited screenwriter 's practice of putting his name to scripts written by blacklisted authors, although his contribution might be more than on the surface given said evolution). The result is not so much a psychological western as a libidinal one in which the clash of emotionally cold but sexually free Vienna and the repressed and sexually-frustrated Emma who shudders in shame when The Dancin' Kid pulls her into a dance but quivers when going head to head with Vienna and seems to be on the verge of an explosive orgasm when she torches Vienna's saloon and is about to become an active participant in her enemy's execution. These tensions are more subversive and thrilling in the foreground than the phallic rivalry of Johnny Guitar and The Dancin' Kid who can both fire a gun but linger for much of the film in the background living up to the artful underpinnings of their names (it is telling that the mob dissipates when things are fatally settled between Vienna and Emma).

While it may have been galling that the lesser-known McCambridge could hold her own against Crawford in front of the camera, the film is still a showcase for Crawford and her character: a seemingly cold and ruthless woman who holds those in her employ at arm's length through wages, who fully realizes that she does care for others – including Johnny, her two dealers, faithful cook (Stagecoach's John Carradine), and even boyish Turkey whose manhood she ridicules – with her stoicism only slipping when she calls out the hypocrisy of McIvers, Emma, the gutless marshal, and the townspeople. That Crawford insisted that all of her close-ups, even those in exteriors, be filmed in the studio under glamour lighting conditions is another means of showing how Vienna sets herself apart from others extending to the final confrontation between Vienna and Emma in which the latter is obviously outside on location in the reverse shots. Much is made of the elemental aspects of the environment, from the opening sandstorm that propels people through the empty streets into Vienna's bar and the stunning construction of the bar interior seemingly built into the side of a mountain – with the cavernous stage where Vienna's piano sits seeming more like a dais for Vienna's throne – the climactic inferno as Emma sets Vienna's bar ablaze, and the waterfall under which people must pass to reach The Dancin' Kid's hideout; indeed, the nature of the finale's setting seems to suggest rebirth for all of the surviving characters no matter how good or bad. The film was a flop domestically, but leave it to the Europeans to appreciate it, particularly the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd who reassessed his output in the context of auteur theory at a time when his health and the demise of the studio system made it harder for him to get projects as a director.


Produced and released by one-time poverty row studio Republic Pictures that had grown into a major studio in the fifties with their own Trucolor process, Johnny Guitar was syndicated by National Telefilm Associates (NTA) in the sixties when they acquired the Republic Pictures catalogue, and then distributed on VHS by them in the early eighties before NTA rebranded their video label Republic Pictures Home Video and re-released the film on VHS and on laserdisc. Sadly it was not one of the Republic titles Artisan put out on DVD after Viacom's acquisition of Republic's library, only coming to Blu-ray when Paramount licensed the film to Olive Films in 2012 for a barebones edition from a 1.33:1 open-matte HD master. The film subsequently underwent a 4K restoration in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and that version debuted on Blu-ray in 2016 from Olive as part of their extras-filled "Signature Series", followed by a barebones German edition from Explosive Media. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray makes use of the same 4K master and the results are stunning to behold from the first shots after the optical credits. Details of the landscape come into crisp relief, so much so that some studio insert shots are more evident than before, and the subtle mismatch of daylight, electronic fill light, and the handful of location shots/studio reverse shots are also more obvious yet this transparency is more thrilling than distracting in psychological and technical terms. One only become aware of "dead space" in the 1.33:1 version in comparison, with most of the camera setups looking designed for the more open aperture while the narrowing framing never really impedes elements of the location or set design.


The sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono track that is free of any distracting hiss or damage, sounding as clean as the picture looks, with clear dialogue, music, and effects. The sound design is not particularly dynamic, but it reminds one of how much the other aspects of cinema from acting to framing and editing contribute to the forcefulness of the action pre-surround sound. Optional English HoH subtitles are included.


Apart from the inclusion of the 1995 archival introduction by filmmaker Martin Scorsese (3:27), playable as an option before the film or from the extras menu, and the film's theatrical trailer (2:59), Eureka has not carried over any of Olive's "Signature Series" extras, instead producing their own array of interesting special features. Up first is an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin who describes the film as a "cinephile cult classic", noting that Vienna is the star rather than Johnny Guitar, the position of women in the film compared to other westerns and how they command and "seduce" without womanly wiles – not to mention a "queer angle" reading – the theatricality of the sets, the first act as virtually one lengthy scene in one location, the use of editing and interruption, the use of the genre of melodrama, as well as political readings of the film's story. He also delves into the behind the scenes drama between Crawford and McCambridge as well as its effect on Ray and Hayden who was going through a divorce and more preoccupied with a coming custody battle than his vanity as an actor getting sidelined by the star (although neither ever wanted to work with Crawford again after the film).

The disc also includes an introduction by critic Geoff Andrew, author of "The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall" (14:01) – Andrew had provided a commentary track on the aforementioned Olive release – in which he contrasts the film's American and European receptions, its growing cult fanbase, the way the "extreme overheated emotions" of the story are embodied in the florid color and the sets, Freudian themes of sublimation, Oedipal lust, and guns as signifiers of masculinity, the use of the natural elements throughout the film, and its classification as an "anti-Western". There is also a video essay video piece by critic Tony Rayns (15:31) who places Ray and the film in the context of his filmography and his departure from RKO, the film's source novel, and the script's much-debated authorship.

In "Never is a Long Time" (23:53), film historian David Cairns expands on the mystery of just who wrote what in the script, citing not only the similarities between the film and aspects of Ben Maddow's suspected uncredited work on The Big Combo, but also noting that film does indeed seem emblematic of Yordan's "Jungian memory for film conventions" in its "mosaic" of conventions and clichés that he suggests as a precursor to the works of Sergio Leone, as well as emphasizing how Crawford's vanity and ego transformed the project into the very particular film it is today. "Stranger" (29:30) is a new interview with director's fourth wife interview Susan Ray who met him while he was lecturing, and also include archival interviews with other filmmakers who recall one of his workshops (footage of which exists on film) and their observation of his handling of actors in shooting scenes to illustrate the craft of filmmaking.

The disc also includes a set of alternate opening credits (1:26) seen on some video releases of the film that play the same credits as the feature presentation but on a blue background rather than the live action background (as with some video releases of other films, this is more likely a matter of the transfer technicians not wanting to bother overlaying the high contrast credits elements over the textless background rather than an actual official alternate presentation of the film).


Not provided for review is the limited edition hardbound slipcase or the 60-page illustrated collector's book featuring two new essays by western expert Howard Hughes, and an archival interview with director Nicholas Ray.


Mutated and evolved according to the ego and vanity of star Joan Crawford - those who see the film as a "cinephile cult classic" would argue for the better - Johnny Guitar is not so much a psychological western as a libidinal one.


Rewind DVDCompare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to,,,,, and . As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.