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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: No one can play it like 'Johnny...

Screen Grabs: No one can play it like ‘Johnny Guitar’

Joan Crawford's catty Western comes to the Roxie. Plus: 'Mobland' could cut the yapping, but Travolta's good

1954 was a time of high anxiety for the film industry, as that still-new menace, television, had by now broken the moviegoing habits of millions by offering free nightly entertainment at home. Eventually Hollywood would deal with that rival by co-opting it, the major studios selling off old product and making new fodder specifically for broadcast. But at this juncture, the panic was real. Hollywood coped by offering things you couldn’t as yet get on the small screen—CinemaScope, 3-D, stereophonic sound, blazing color—while still relying on old formulas and stars.

No genre was quite so impacted by the changing times as the Western, a staple since celluloid’s earliest days—common wisdom had it that the first “real” movie was 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, pitting thieving varmints on horseback against the lawmen of wild, wild…er, New Jersey.

This peculiarly American form was as nearly fail-safe as it was repetitive, making coin whether as “Poverty Row” cheapies ground out for kiddie matinees or starry superproductions by the likes of John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille. But the screen western’s vast back catalog (much owned by lower-rung companies unconcerned about feeding the “enemy”) soon became ubiquitous on TV. So did new series in the same vein, from The Lone Ranger to eventual more elaborate productions like Bonanza. There was less and less incentive for viewers to spend bucks at the local movie house on what was available gratis at home.

Nonetheless, Hollywood could hardly abandon its hitherto dependable cash cow overnight, and some westerns still did well. One of them was Johnny Guitar, which the Roxie is showing Sat/26 at 3:50pm. Most attempts to do something truly “different” with the sagebrush formula were commercial failures—its fans valued consistency—but this rare female-driven story, swapping usual gender roles to an outrageous degree, was a healthy box-office success in 1954. That was perhaps partly spurred by notoriety: The appeal of an oncreen catfight was no doubt enhanced by widespread reports that this film’s female stars hated each other’s guts off-camera, too.

It was a property owned by the imposing veteran Joan Crawford, so tailored to her persona that the source novel (by Roy Chansor, who also wrote Cat Ballou) had been dedicated to her. She selected fast-rising Nicholas Ray—with whom she was purportedly having an affair—to direct for Republic Pictures, a “B” studio making one of its “A” efforts.

But by all accounts, the shoot was a nightmare. Crawford loathed co-star Mercedes McCambridge, their antipathy on set just as vivid as it was onscreen; probably not helping any was that both actresses were drinking more than a little. (Much later, a sober McCambridge became CEO to a still-active residential facility for recovering alcoholics.) Crawford also detested louche leading man Sterling Hayden, and vice versa. Breaking the studios’ usual code of PR-friendly discretion, all three stars public aired their grievances towards one another with insult-throwing zeal. For his part, Ray found the whole ordeal so unpleasant he frequently had “to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning.”

Somehow those feuds only enhanced the end result, however, particularly since Johnny Guitar is almost entirely a tale of axe-grinding hostility and one-upmanship—practically every time someone opens their piehole, it’s to emasculate someone else. La Crawford, looking like kd lang’s evil stepmother, is Vienna, who’s built a saloon and casino in the Arizona hinterlands on the assumption that a soon-to-be-built train route will render the location golden. This sits ill with the prairie burg’s queen bee (and apparently sole other woman), McCambridge’s Emma, who calls her “nuthin but a railroad tramp!” and worse. Emma’s spite is heightened by the fact that she pines for the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), an amiably disreputable type whom Vienna has already casually loved and tossed aside.

Tensions between Vienna’s camp and Emma’s are only inflamed further by the arrival of the titular Mr. Guitar (Hayden), a laconic tunesmith and quipster she’s hired as entertainment—though it turns out they have a shared romantic past, too. Once the Kid and his gang stupidly rob the local bank, that gives Emma all the excuse she needs to stir up a lynch mob that hopefully won’t balk at hanging innocent Vienna from the nearest tree as well, just cuz.

Everything about Johnny Guitar is florid: The lurid palette of Republic’s perversely named process Trucolor, whose garishly clashing hues cannot be found in nature; the dialogue (Johnny: “How many men have you forgotten?” Vienna: “As many women as you’ve remembered”); Victor Young’s hyperventilating orchestral score; the butting-rams behavior of the characters, particularly the women. Crawford is at her most butch (it seems ludicrous when later she dons a white ball gown), a Kabuki-severe face mask swimming in its very own soft focus—she insisted all her closeups be shot separately in the studio, rather than on location. It’s no wonder she hated McCambridge, a venom-spitting gremlin who seems to wear no makeup at all, and steals every scene she’s in.

Playing a role first offered to Robert Mitchum (the only other actor who could have pulled it off), 6’5” Hayden completes the film’s upending of gender norms: He plays Johnny as an insolently pretty himbo who drives everyone nuts by being so blase amidst high melodrama. He’s like Marlene Dietrich in her westerns, the maddeningly unconcerned object of desire.

Given all the fireworks produced by those three, it’s no small feat that the supporting cast manages to make a vivid impression, especially John Carradine as Old Tom (seemingly the only nice person in Arizona), and Ernest Borgnine as the most belligerent of the Kid’s gang. Ben Cooper plays a doomed, confused teenager in a sort of warmup for what Ray would be doing one year later: Directing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

Johnny Guitar is a classic, and god knows it has camp value, but it’s not exactly a “camp classic.” Its excesses are all very deliberate, not some accident of ineptitude or bad taste. (Though you might argue that point re: Crawford’s performance.) Reviewers at the time didn’t know what to make it of it—they found it bizarre, even discomfiting. Audiences just lapped up the baroque conflict, and few viewers since have failed to follow their lead.

Ray’s film is an unusual western in that at least its first half is largely confined to one interior (one wonders if it was an influence on Tarantino’s rather more labored The Hateful Eight), and even once bullets begin flying, the most deadly weapons are verbal. Likewise mixing a whole lotta gunplay and a whole lotta talk is Mob Land, which hits On Demand platforms on Fri/25 after Saban Films’ short theatrical release. Despite the ad image of John Travolta aiming his handgun beneath the brim of a cowboy hat, this is not a western—or even a Travolta vehicle, as he’s really a supporting player.

Instead, the primary focus is on Shelby (Shiloh Fernandez), a small-town boy in the present day Deep South who’s doing his best to support a wife (Ashley Benson) and grade-school daughter (Tia DeMartino). But they’re just scraping along, at best. In a weak moment, he agrees to help brother-in-law Trey (Kevin Dillon) rob a local “pill mill” fueling the opioid epidemic that’s ravaged communities like theirs. It almost seems like a good deed… at least until ne’er-do-well Trey breaks all promises and impulsively turns the heist into a bloodbath.

This crime not only draws the attention of Travolta’s mild-mannered local sheriff, it also brings even less-welcome inquiries from one Clayton Minor (Stephen Dorff), an enforcer representing the interests of the New Orleans mob boss (Robert Miano) whose loot is now MIA. It doesn’t take him long to sniff out the amateur crooks’ trail, to their considerable grief, with a further pile of bodies quickly accumulating.

This first feature for director Nicholas Maggio is well-shot, and a cut above the generally crappy level of latterday projects for Travolta. (He duly gives one of his better recent performances, even if he doesn’t get much screentime.) But it also feels like a derivative pastiche of other “rural noir”-type movies—No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water immediately come to mind—that nonetheless burdens itself with a pantsload of self-importance.

Dorff is initially presented in terms way too much like that of Javier Bardem’s memorable cold-blooded character in No Country. But then we’re meant to think he has a conscience, after all, one that’s aired in windbagging folksy philosophical bursts. When the film’s tension should be ramping up, instead it slows so he and others can pontificate. Such dimestore existentialism gradually crowds out the occasional snappy good-old-boy patter in Maggio’s script.

Less yappin’ would have whittled Mob Land down from a bloated 111 minutes, to its benefit. It’s a violent melodrama with a high body count that aspires to backroads Greek tragedy, but instead feels increasingly ersatz. The pain we’re meant to feel gets mitigated by phony or pretentious choices (like Fernandez’s fashion-model haircut), which undercut the notion that the story is unfolding in any real, beleaguered community. Aiming for both the authentic and the quasi-mythic, this over-contrived, overly serious potboiler ends up falling well short of either.

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