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Johnny Guitar is a 1954 American Trucolor western drama film directed by Nicholas Ray starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady. The screenplay was adapted from a novel by Roy Chanslor.

Johnny Guitar
Johnny guitar.jpg
Directed byNicholas Ray
Produced byHerbert J. Yates
Written byPhilip Yordan
Based onJohnny Guitar
1953 novel
by Roy Chanslor
StarringJoan Crawford
Sterling Hayden
Mercedes McCambridge
Scott Brady
Music byPeggy Lee
Victor Young
CinematographyHarry Stradling Sr.
Edited byRichard L. Van Enger
Republic Pictures
Distributed byRepublic Pictures
Release date
  • May 7, 1954 (1954-05-07) (Los Angeles, California)
  • May 26, 1954 (1954-05-26) (New York City)
  • August 23, 1954 (1954-08-23) (United States)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.5 million (US)[1]

In 2008, Johnny Guitar was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[2]


On the outskirts of a wind-swept Arizona cattle town, an aggressive and strong-willed saloonkeeper named Vienna maintains a volatile relationship with the local cattlemen and townsfolk. Not only does she support the railroad being laid nearby (the cattlemen oppose it), but she permits "The Dancin' Kid" (her former amour) and his confederates to frequent her saloon.

The locals, led by John McIvers and egged on by Emma Small, a onetime rival of Vienna, are determined to force Vienna out of town, and the hold-up of the stage (they suspect, erroneously, by "The Dancin' Kid") offers a perfect pretext.

Vienna faces them down, helped by the mysterious and just arrived Johnny Guitar. McIvers gives Vienna, Johnny Guitar, and "The Dancin Kid" and his sidekicks 24 hours to leave. Johnny turns out to be Vienna's ex-lover and a reformed gunslinger whose real name is Johnny Logan. A smouldering love/hate relationship develops.

The Dancin' Kid and his gang rob the town bank to fund their escape to California, but the pass is blocked by a railroad crew dynamiting a way in, and they flee back to their secret hideout behind a waterfall. Emma Small convinces the townsfolk that Vienna is as guilty as the rest, and the posse rides to her saloon.

Vienna appears to be getting the best of another verbal confrontation when one of the wounded bank robbers, Turkey, is discovered under a table. Emma persuades the men to hang Vienna and Turkey, and burns the saloon down. At the last second Vienna is saved by Johnny Guitar. Vienna and Johnny escape the posse and find refuge in The Dancin' Kid's secret hideaway.

The posse tracks them down, and the last two of Kid's men are killed by infighting. A halt is called to the bloodbath by the posse's leader, McIvers. Emma challenges Vienna to a showdown; The Dancin' Kid calls to Emma but is killed by a bullet to the head by an angered Emma. Emma then shoots Vienna, but only in the shoulder; Vienna shoots Emma in the head. The posse allows Johnny and Vienna to leave the hideout in peace, watching them go.



Crawford and Nick Ray were scheduled to make a film called Lisbon at Paramount, but the script proved unacceptable. Crawford held the film rights to the book, which author Roy Chanslor had dedicated to her, brought the script to Republic and had them hire Ray to direct it.[3][4][5][6]

Crawford wanted either Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck for the role of Emma Small, but they were too expensive.[7] Claire Trevor was next in mind for the role but was unable to accept because she was tied up with another film.[8] Finally, Nicholas Ray brought in McCambridge.

Most people claimed Crawford was easy to work with, always professional, generous, patient and kind.[9][10] Issues between the two women cropped up early on, but Ray was not alarmed – at first. He found it "heaven sent" that they disliked each other and felt it added greatly to the dramatic conflict.[5] The reasons for the feud appear to date back to a time when Crawford had once dated McCambridge's husband, Fletcher Markle. According to some of the other co-stars, McCambridge needled Crawford about it.[9] McCambridge also appears to have disliked that Crawford and Ray were in the midst of an affair. Crawford, on the other hand, disliked what she perceived to be "special attention" that Ray was giving to McCambridge.[5]

Making things worse was that McCambridge was battling alcoholism during this period,[11] something she admitted later contributed to the problems between her and Crawford.[12]

After filming, McCambridge and Hayden publicly declared their dislike of Crawford, with McCambridge labeling Crawford, "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady".[13] Hayden said in an interview, "There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money." [14]

Crawford for her part said of McCambridge, "I have four children – I do not need a fifth." [5]

Later, Ray claimed that Crawford, during a rage, drunkenly threw McCambridge's costumes into the street.[15] Crawford later laughingly admitted she had thrown McCambridge's own clothing into the street.[5] Ray also said of that time, "Joan was drinking a lot and she liked to fight," but that she was also "very attractive, with a basic decency." [16]


The film opened to negative reviews. [17] Despite a number of initial negative reviews, in the United States and Canada Johnny Guitar grossed more than $2,500,000 as of January 1955 ($21,396,003.72 in 2012 dollars, adjusted for inflation) [18] and was No. 27 on Variety's list of top money makers of 1954.[19]

Variety commented, "It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle... The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time."[20]

Bosley Crowther singled out Crawford's physical bearing for criticism in his New York Times review, stating "no more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in 'Shane.' For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades."[21]

The film later became regarded [22] as one of Ray's best films, topped by the famous title song. The film has a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 8.5/10 based on the reviews of 45 critics, with the general consensus being "Johnny Guitar confidently strides through genre conventions, emerging with a brilliant statement that transcends its period setting -- and left an indelible mark."[23]

The film was beloved by French filmmaker François Truffaut, who described it as the "Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream".[24] Truffaut was especially impressed by the film's extravagance: the bold colors, the poetry of the dialogue in certain scenes, and the theatricality which results in cowboys vanishing and dying "with the grace of ballerinas".

In his 1988 release Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar pays homage to the film. His lead character Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a voice artist, passes out while dubbing Vienna's voice in a scene where Johnny (voiced earlier by Pepa's ex-lover Iván) and Vienna banter about their conflicted past. Almodóvar's film also ends with a chase and an obsessed woman shooting at his lead character.

In 1998, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum listed Johnny Guitar as one of the 100 best American films.[25]

In 2012, Japanese film director Shinji Aoyama listed Johnny Guitar as one of the Greatest Films of All Time. He said, "Johnny Guitar is the only movie that I'd like to remake someday, although I know that it's impossible. It's probably closest to the worst nightmare I can have. I know for sure that my desire to remake this movie comes from my warped thought that I want to remake my own nightmare."[26]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Many critics, including Roger Ebert,[29] have pointed out that the film is a hidden commentary on the McCarthy witch-hunts.[30] The film is more than just a Western – Truffaut, who admired the film, called it "a phony Western". [31]

In an interview in the Criterion Collection release of The Killing, Sterling Hayden said that he did not care for Johnny Guitar. "They put string, like you get at the grocery store, over my guitar in case I accidentally hit them," he said, acknowledging that "I can't play guitar, and can't sing a good-goddamn, either." "I was at war on that film, during the daytime, with Joan Crawford," he recalled, "and at night with my second wife." Despite his reservations about the film, Hayden acknowledged its popularity.

According to Martin Scorsese, contemporary American audiences "didn't know what to make of it, so they either ignored it or laughed at it." European audiences, on the other hand, free of conventional biases, saw Johnny Guitar for what it was: "an intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtexts that rendered it extremely modern."[32]

Home mediaEdit

The film has been released in DVD and Blu-ray formats. [33]


Johnny Guitar was adapted into a stage musical, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2004, with a book by American television producer Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyrics by Joel Higgins, and music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins. [34]

In popular cultureEdit


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  2. ^ National Film Registry Titles 1989 - 2013|"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-03-28. Retrieved 2014-06-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud
  4. ^ Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star
  5. ^ a b c d e Joan Crawford, The Essential Biography
  6. ^ Production Files
  7. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, page 266.
  8. ^ Johnny Guitar production files
  9. ^ a b Johnny Dearest,, October 2003
  10. ^ Interview with Ernest Borgnine, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-09-15. Retrieved 2013-01-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ "'The Exorcist' actress Mercedes McCambridge dies at 85". USA Today. March 17, 2004.
  12. ^ Mercedes Mccambridge: A Biography And Career Record
  13. ^ "The Exorcist actress Mercedes McCambridge dies at 85". USA Today. March 17, 2004. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Interview with Nicholas Ray
  16. ^ Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud
  17. ^ Pulling Focus: Johnny Guitar — Taste of Cinema
  18. ^ "CPI Inflation Calculator". Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  19. ^ The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954", Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955.
  20. ^ Quirk, Lawrence J.. The Films of Joan Crawford. The Citadel Press, 1968.
  21. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen in Review; Johnny Guitar' Opens at the Mayfair".
  22. ^ DVD of the Week: Johnny Guitar|The New Yorker
  23. ^ "Johnny Guitar". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2018-12-27.
  24. ^ Truffaut, The Films in My Life
  25. ^ List-o-Mania Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies By Jonathan Rosenbaum, June 26, 1998
  26. ^ Aoyama, Shinji (2012). "The Greatest Films Poll". Sight & Sound.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  28. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  29. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Johnny Guitar Movie Review & Film Summary (1954) - Roger Ebert".
  30. ^ For example, Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray (1991, 2004)
  31. ^ Johnny Guitar (Blu-ray)-AV Club
  32. ^ Martin Scorsese introduces Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) dir. Nicholas Ray. YouTube. 24 April 2011. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  33. ^ Olive Films
  34. ^ [2]
  35. ^ [3]

External linksEdit