Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature BD Review/Comparison (originally published 2016)
Persecuted by the townspeople, Vienna (Joan Crawford) must protect her life and property when a lynch mob led by her sexually repressed rival, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), attempts to frame her for a string of robberies she did not commit. Enter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), a guitar-strumming ex-gunfighter, who once was – and perhaps still is – in love with Vienna. (From Olive’s official synopsis)
Since there are a number of fascinating critical dissertations already devoted to praising and dissecting Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (several available as part of the extras on this very disc) and because I’m devoting so much of this review to the image quality, this will be a pared down, nitty-gritty look at this seminal and still misunderstood western. First up is the fact that it is a female-driven western. There were other westerns with female leads before 1954 – notably a collection of movies headlined by Barbara Stanwyck (George Stevens’ Annie Oakley, 1935; Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, 1939; John Farrow’s California, 1947; and Anthony Mann’s The Furies, 1950) and musical biopics, like George Sidney/Busby Berkeley/Charles Walters’ [i]Annie Get Your Gun[/i] (1950) and David Butler’s Calamity Jane (1953) – but Ray’s film is driven by its women. Vienna isn’t a typical wilting flower or a hooker with a heart of gold (though she is a former sex worker) – she’s a community leader who fights her own battles and is just as comfortable wearing a dress as she is wearing a six-gun and jeans (a woman in pants was still a big deal in 1953, let alone the era in which the movie takes place). The men are entranced by her, impotently flirt with her, and whine at her when their feelings aren’t compatible with her ambition or her history of prostitution. Emma Small’s contempt for Vienna and fear of her own sexual appetites make her a worthy and dangerous adversary. She is surrounded by men who she riles into doing terrible things with cutting insults to their manhood.
Of course, there are plenty of events that don’t fit the film’s feminist reputation (Johnny saves Vienna more than once, Emma’s animosity fits the sexist neurotic woman trope, et cetera), and, beyond the feminist discussion is a more easily overlooked LGBTQ+ subtext. I’m personally not equipped to fully explore this aspect of the film (try Johnny Guitar: The Odd Western Out… by Matty Stanfield and The Queer Cinephile(s) #12: Johnny Guitar by D. Everett Salyer for some choice observations), but it’s hard to mistake the bending of gender binaries. Like most of Ray’s movies, it is hard to mistake the undercurrent of sexuality pulsing throughout the film, straight, gay, or whatever your sexual proclivity is (Ray himself was famously bisexual and engaged in some tawdry relationships with cast members over the years).
Part of the reason Ray took so long to catch on with the American critics of his era was the fact that he embraced melodrama and, in the case of his ‘50s work, genre trappings. His most famous film, Rebel without a Cause (1955), is considered a groundbreaking classic now but, at the time, it was just a more opulent version of a juvenile delinquency picture, complete with unhinged emotional outbursts and tawdry exchanges that teased the era’s censors. Johnny Guitar burns with the same types over-the-top performances, tired genre tropes, and deceptively simplistic characterizations. Hiding behind the façade of faux-trashy filmmaking, Ray and blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (credited as Philip Yordan) turned Roy Chanslor’s novel into a scathing indictment of McCarthyism and the Communist witch-hunts. Actually, “hiding” is the wrong word, because the metaphor is so blatantly stated. Mercedes McCambridge’s character might as well be renamed Emma McCarthy and, while we’re at it, we can probably re-label guns “penises,” because that’s another super obvious allegory. Unlike the more prestigious revisionist westerns of the era – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), and George Stevens’ Shane) (1953), for example – Ray’s film could easily hide among other B-pictures, namely sci-fi movies, like Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Johnny Guitar’s pure genre aesthetic and ostentatious use of color (at some point, it was almost an even more ostentatious 3D picture) doesn’t necessarily make it a better revisionist western, but they certainly made it more accessible film for foreign audiences. While the film languished in obscurity stateside, it became a touchstone for the French New Wave (la nouvelle vague) movement (François Truffaut, in particular, championed it along with the rest of Ray’s filmography), as well as the New Hollywood establishment that would follow. More important to my interests, it was a key influence on Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns. It had the most direct influence on Leone’s magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The director had basically (not literally) locked future filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento in a theater and force-fed him his favorite American westerns. The resulting early screenplay was a mash-up of story elements, including plot points from Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, and, according to Argento himself, Johnny Guitar. Both films feature retired prostitute female leads who are visited by mysterious gunslingers/love interests with musical gimmicks/names (Johnny Guitar’s counterpart is simply named “Harmonica”) and whose properties are set along oncoming railroad routes. The dreary onslaught of windblown red sand that accompanies Johnny into town may also be referenced during Jason Robards’ Once Upon a Time in the West entrance.
As I said, Johnny Guitar took a long time to catch on. Even with Scorsese incessantly ringing the Johnny Guitar bell on Turner Classic Movies every couple of months, the film didn’t enter the National Film Registry until 2008 and wasn’t released on R1 DVD until 2012, when Olive Films put out a non-anamorphic disc at the same time as their Blu-ray debut. Before this, fans had to either catch it on television or import a European DVD (from Germany, Spain, France, or the UK). When Olive announced this ‘Signature’ re-release, I have to admit that I didn’t expect a huge visual upgrade. The original 1080p disc was a decent progressive scan version of the same transfer used for TCM broadcasts (it probably aired on other stations too). It wasn’t super-sharp, but it was relatively artifact-free and the vivid Trucolor (Republic Pictures’ short-lived answer to Technicolor) palette lent itself well to the HD format. But this Olive Signature remaster, taken from a brand new 4K scan, isn’t messing around and there are major differences between releases, as you can probably see from the comparative screen caps I’ve provided (Olive Signature 4K on the top, original transfer on the bottom). I suspect that, like Warner Bros.’ remastered Goodfellas, Fox’s remastered The French Connection, and Shout Factory’s remastered Phantom of the Paradise, this release will court controversy among fans.
I’ll begin with the aspects that definitely work in the Signature transfer’s favor – namely its significantly better detail levels. There is no question that the 4K scan has produced fantastic results in terms of fine textures, tight edges, sharp lines, and satisfying grain structure (you can now see the massive difference between location shots and Crawford’s contract-mandated soft-focus close-ups). The old transfer appears fuzzy and even a bit pixelated in full-screen comparisons. Though the darkness of the Signature image appears a bit extreme when put up against the softer original release, the higher contrast and stronger blacks absolutely promote more dynamic range and depth (there are still cases where the contrast seems unnecessarily harsh – see Borgnine’s face in the third cap). This brings us to the new 1.66:1 framing. All other DVD, TV, and Blu-ray versions of Johnny Guitar were framed at 1.33:1, which would not be unusual for an early ‘50s picture. However, imdb.com does list the original theatrical aspect ratio as 1.66:1. While gathering screencaps, I assumed that the Signature version was just slightly cropped on the top and bottom of the frame, but closer inspection reveals that it also has more information on the left and right than the original scan, meaning that both releases are cropped in one way or another.
The elephant in this room, however, is the new color-timing. I wasn’t around for Johnny Guitar’s initial theatrical run, so I can’t guarantee that the older Olive transfer has the more accurate palette, but, based on the tealing of blues and yellowing of more neutral hues, I think it’s safe to say that this is a modern interpretation of Ray and cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.’s original intentions. This is the same exact issue seen on those other ‘problematic’ transfers I’ve mentioned, as well as MGM’s remastered The Good, the Bad and the Ugly disc, which is probably the more applicable example. In this case, the problem is mitigated, in large part because so much of the film takes place in brown and tan environments. There’s very little difference in the color-timing during interior shots, aside from the redness of the rock wall in Vienna’s saloon, which I would definitely consider one of the movie’s signature element (the film takes place near the famously reddish Monument Valley). The natural greens survive the new gradation and both red and blue costume pieces are actually a bit more vivid on the Signature transfer, but I do miss those cornflower skies. Overall, this is an improvement and the newcomers that aren’t used to older releases won’t even notice the difference (unlike that Good, the Bad and the Ugly transfer). Watching the film on my set, apart from these comparison caps, I have to admit that I barely noticed the difference.
Johnny Guitar is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound. The press release doesn’t say anything about the soundtrack being remastered along with the video, but the re-release track does feature slightly more dynamic range and bass. It’s a relatively loud movie, considering how much screen time is devoted to dialogue. The opening sequence is quickly flooded with rough and tumble western action, including gunfights, a TNT blast, and galloping horses. This is followed by a lot of talky interior shots, but the gusting wind outside is rarely forgotten. Later scenes feature relatively natural foley work and strong, consistent vocals (minus the awkward echo effects, which were mixed on purpose by the original sound designers). The explosions continue throughout the movie as well. The music is credited to jazz singer/songwriter Peggy Lee (who some readers might know from her work on Disney’s Lady and the Tramp) and Academy Award-winning composer Victor Young. Lee co-wrote and sings the theme song, while Young wrote the rather boilerplate, but occasionally rousing theatrical elements. Sterling Hayden is terrible at pretending to play guitar, but whoever is actually playing sounds great on the track.
Introduction by Martin Scorsese (3:28, SD) – The one and only supplement carried over from Olive’s first disc is this brief intro from Johnny Guitar’s biggest fan. Until now, this was the only extra that accompanied the film on any home video release.
Commentary with expert Geoff Andrew – The Sight & Sound critic, BFI Southbank programmer, and author of The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall (British Film Institute, 2004) discusses the ins and outs of the film in this brand new track. There’s not too much overlap between this and the other interviews/essays on this disc.
Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other (17:29, HD) – A generalized appreciation from critics/experts/fans Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich, who discuss the film’s use of confining indoor sets, the different themes hidden within its architecture, other post-WWII revisionist westerns, the movies it influenced, the use of color, and Ray’s post Johnny Guitar career.
Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?: Questioning the Canon (14:33, HD) – Bale, Rich, McElhaney, and Jones return to break down the accepted conceit that Johnny Guitar is a feminist film. This thoughtful deliberation doesn’t arrive at a definitive answer to the question, but the participants do a good job contextualizing the film’s era, the era that labeled it feminist (the late ‘60s/early ‘70s), and the concept of what makes a movie feminist (hint: the phrase means different things to different people).
Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar(10:23, HD) – Historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, Fail Safe) recount the history of the Blacklist (Bernstein from his own point of view), the practice of using other writers as a front, and Johnny Guitar’s controversial writer credits (apparently, Maddow and Yordan both claimed it).
Free Republic: The Story of Herb Yates and Republic Studios (6:01, HD) – Archivist Marc Wanamaker gives a brief history of Republic Pictures’ and their attempts to compete with the major studios in the 1950s, including the creation of the aforementioned Technicolor rip-off known as TruColor.
My Friend, the American Friend (11:07, HD) - Nicholas Ray is remembered by friend/student Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich, who produced Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), which features Ray in a prominent acting role.
Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western – A text essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
Johnny Guitar is an operatic all-time western classic that begs to be visited and revisited for its rich themes, influential filmmaking, and old-fashioned entertainment value. It welcomes discussion and this 4K remastered re-release is the perfect excuse to strike up that discussion. The remastered image is a big upgrade over the previous Olive Films Blu-ray, though there have been some changes made to the color temperature and gamma/contrast that [i]may[/i] court controversy with videophile fans (I’ve tried to cover the issue as extensively as possible above). The brand new extras are extensive, including a great expert commentary and a series of short, but info-packed featurettes. I’m looking forward to what Olive has in store for the rest of their Signature line.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.