Nathaniel is spoiling me. For this week’s episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, he’s selected Johnny Guitar, one of my favorite movies of ever, one that I have revisited multiple times since I reviewed it in 2008, and have just loved it more and more even above and beyond that rave.
I’m going to skip the usual preamble and context, since there’s that review waiting right there, though I will note a paradox: director Nicholas Ray and cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. made one of the best shot Westerns in history with this movie, and yet its brilliance comes more from its visual schema than any individual shot – it’s the way that shot styles keep repeating that makes the film look brilliant. Which makes it tricky to pick a singular Best Shot, since all the good candidates show up multiple times, echoing each other.
And above all the things that keep showing up is a repeated motif of Joan Crawford as Vienna, the proud and self-reliant woman who owns a saloon out in the wild, waiting for the train to come by and make her a wealthy, proud, and self-reliant woman, standing alone in empty frames that she’s allowed to completely dominate. Frames like this one:
It’s not only my pick because it is typical, though when I think of Johnny Guitar, I do primarily think of Crawford standing in proud isolation. I also think of the unnerving, genre-blasting campy weirdness of it, and we have that here too: Crawford in the flounciest dress she’ll wear all movie (she tends to wear masculine clothes), sitting against a rock wall that has been framed to resemble a cave dressed up as a Victorian parlor. The sheer oddness of the shot almost tends to dominate the actual content of it, though the content matters: Vienna using the trappings of delicate femininity, something she has eschewed all movie, as a way of asserting her dominance and power to control the interior space of her saloon – for we are presently in her saloon – against the mindless mob brought there by her arch-enemy, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge).
Which, since I can’t resist, said mob shows up in reverse shots, thusly:
And that, with its disorienting low angle and freaky lack of depth, would also be a decent pick for Best Shot, but let’s go back to the one I actually picked. So we have the gender-bending Vienna pantomiming femininity in a totally incongruous space, bringing a touch of fussy civilisation to the very bedrock of the American West in the most heavily ironised way possible. The extremely narrow band of colors – there’s really nothing going on here besides brown and white – makes Vienna’s triangular shape stand out as an even more aberrant element in the composition than it would be simply because of the narrative requirements of the moment and the story being told by the image.
It is, in all ways, an image of things that shouldn’t go together being forcibly wedged into one place, and to hell with how peculiar the result turns out to be – it is a patchwork of irreconcilable elements that are all collected solely because Vienna’s will is that they should be. Out of all the great solo shots of Crawford in the movie, this is the one that most dramatically represents her character’s stubborness and willpower; and its hallucinatory aspect, that sense of random absurdity, makes it a perfect embodiment of the director’s uniquely offbeat, outsider quality – the queer straight guy sensibility that makes a Ray film a Ray film, and makes this the most Ray film of them all.