Joan Crawford, like Marlene Dietrich, was almost too powerful a force to be contained by the boundaries of the film frame. Few films serve her quite as well as Johnny Guitar, which allows Crawford to dart between contemptuous courage and existential fragility within the space of seconds.
After a brief prelude, Johnny Guitar initially unfolds as a tense and invigorating one-room stageplay, expertly and precisely staged by director Nicholas Ray as a ballet of wills and longings and violence (both latent and expressed). A suicidal energy cuts through each interaction. Every character here stands poised on the brink of combustion.
That’s an excellent space for Crawford, in particular, whose Vienna has clawed her way up from the streets and hitched her dreams to the westward expansion of the railroad. She made her way through the seedy underbelly of the old America and dreams of building a new one.
Sterling Hayden, a master of wry delivery, appears in the title role as Vienna’s former lover. His Johnny, a self-destructive gunslinger who has come to the end of his tether after a history of wanton bloodshed, represents both the culmination of Vienna’s dreams and the threat of its collapse into the wreckage of the past. They carry their wounds with them, and each might find their own demise in their acquiescence to the other.
This ballet, always in danger of transforming into a death-dance, plays out against the backdrop of a frontier turf war. This war between old and new Americas eventually breaks out from Vienna’s would-be enclave, the casino she’s built beside the future path of the railroad, into the unforgiving terrain of that frontier.
As with nearly all of the great Westerns things come together in a tense shootout. If victory remains elusive for any of the film’s characters, the next best thing is remaining alive. If Vienna cannot build the new America, she might survive the pangs of its birth.