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FILM : 'Johnny Guitar' Pulls Some Kinky Strings

February 28, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

There's one thing that can be said about "Johnny Guitar"--Joan Crawford, in the early stages of her 1950s bushy-eyebrow phase, never looked more handsome.

Done up in mannish clothes, a six-shooter strapped to her thigh and enjoying some macho posturing, Crawford could almost be playing the role of a guy in weird cowboy drag. Her co-star, a snarling Mercedes McCambridge, nearly outdraws her in all this gender-bending--she's like a rabid Mickey Rooney in a black dress. When was the last time a Western ended with a gunfight between two women?

Audiences in 1954, when Nicholas Ray's movie premiered, were unprepared for such a new slant. So were the critics, who responded by booing the film for many reasons, including Ray's handling of cinema queen Crawford. Their complaint that he overturned her femininity seems curiously sexist today, but the lament nonetheless raises legitimate questions.

Just what was Ray up to in this kinkiest of American Westerns, which screens at UC Irvine on Saturday night? Was he offering a revolutionary statement about women's roles, or was he just goofing off, casually creating the first avant-garde comedy-frontier film?

Nobody's been able to adequately sort it out, but something happened along the way--"Johnny Guitar's" ambiguity and silly archness eventually led it into the pantheon of cult classics, a movie revered for its head-scratching campiness.

It is a howler. Right from the start, "Johnny Guitar," whether intentionally or not, takes on a stylized humor that flouts convention. As Crawford's Vienna, the imperious saloon boss, barks out orders, one of her men turns to the camera: "I never met a woman more like a man," he says of Vienna. "She thinks like one, acts like one, sometimes she makes me feel like I'm not (one). . . . I never thought I'd end up working for a woman--and liking it!"

Then the title character makes his move. Played by a gangly, impossibly slow-talking Sterling Hayden, he's a deadly minstrel, a legendary gunfighter trying to go straight by playing peaceful tunes on his guitar. He used to be involved with Vienna and hopes to start it up again. She hopes he'll be able to stand by her when things get rough.

Vienna's got the whole town, especially crazed rancher Emma (McCambridge), upset over her get-rich-quick scheme to sell the saloon to the railroad (it's never made clear why that's such a bad idea, but it does create a conflict, the cornerstone of any Western, even an outrageous one). Emma loves the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a local hotshot who's been hanging out with Vienna.

When Emma's gang of surly town folk and Vienna's brood of loyal bar hands reach fighting pitch, Johnny Guitar defuses everything by plunking out a nice song. What does the Dancin' Kid do? He grabs Emma and starts dancing. Real good, too.

Hilarious, but everything is delivered so straight, with such frayed-nerves acting, that "Johnny Guitar" seems to spoof not only the heroic super-realism of Westerns but the moody manners of film noir. The dialogue is clipped and punchy, the characters wear their morality on their sleeves, and the pace is driven.

As its cult status has grown, a few revisionist critics have gone so far as to label "Johnny Guitar" one of the 10 best Westerns ever. That's pushing it, even with a cast that includes such stalwarts as Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano and Ernest Borgnine.

But the movie's entertaining quirkiness is undeniable. Look for the odd detailing, such as the path to Dancin' Kid's lair, which literally takes you through a waterfall, and the surrey ride that, with the background shrubbery hurtling by, looks like a drag race out of Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause."

What: Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar."

When: Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's 178 Humanities Hall.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive to Bridge Road. Take Bridge into the campus.

Wherewithal: Donations accepted.

Where to Call: (714) 856-8596 and 856-0394.

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