The melodrama of Johnny Guitar is so over-the-top that some will find it laughable. Others will fall under the spell of its hypnotic power.
Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the owner of a saloon that stands on land valued by the railroad.
Mercedes McCambridge is Emma Small, the black-clad spinster daughter of a big land-owner who lusts after the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who in turn wants Vienna, who has another man in her past – Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden).
Driven crazy by frustrated desire, Emma leads a lynch mob to burn down Vienna’s saloon and hang the Kid. But Vienna stands firm.
At the end there’s a shoot-out between Emma and Vienna, the kind of reversal of convention that led some critics to claim the film for feminism.
It’s also been read as an anti-McCarthy allegory, against mob hysteria and for those who make a stand on principle.
Whatever its ultimate meaning, the film – financed by the minor studio Republic – is boldly baroque in its use of strong colours, its bravura acting style (with Joan Crawford particularly outstanding), and in the haunting beauty of its theme song, sung by the great Peggy Lee.
Johnny Guitar is quite possibly the strangest Western of all time. If you can’t take this much artifice, perhaps you’d be safer watching documentaries.