Part western, part sex comedy

Film Column

October 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In Johnny Guitar (1954), part of a cycle of haywire "adult" westerns and this week's entry in the Saturday revival series at the Charles, Nicholas Ray, an unabashedly baroque director, tarts up a ranchers vs. outsiders saga with wild colors, a barreling pace and overt, hilarious sexual innuendoes.

There may be other cowboy movies with Johnny Guitar's quantity of action, though none has as much going on just beneath the surface. It's probably the weirdest picture ever turned out by Republic Pictures, once Hollywood's leading Western factory. Even the movie's look is unique -- it was shot in a "Trucolor" process that makes some scenes look as though they're painted on red clay.

It starts out as a typical hard-edged '50s Western, with the bad guys -- range-riding plutocrats -- pitting themselves against Vienna (Joan Crawford), who runs a casino bar and wants to cash in when the railroad hits town. The rich fear that the newcomers will nullify their power.

By movie's end, however, Ward Bond, the most powerful rancher, admits that the shooting and lynching and rampaging have less to do with any issues than with the jealousy of Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a sexually repressed banking-woman, for Vienna, who casts a spell on every man she meets.

We never learn how Vienna got her name. Perhaps she's meant to represent European sophistication: She argues that women have as much right to a double standard as men, and her place is a frontier Monte Carlo. There are simpler reasons for the monikers of Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, and the Dancing Kid, played by Scott Brady -- one strums and the other two-steps. The movie is so rapid-fire that this triangle, Emma's love-hate for the Kid (and hatred of Vienna) and the town's political alignments are all set up within minutes. But few of the relationships get very far. They're just juggled together in a combustible atmosphere -- and they intermittently explode.

The ways the actors handle their overheated situations become a series of interlocking jokes. Crawford, in costumes that could have been designed by Krafft-Ebing and color-coded by Walt Disney (black for business, white and red for innocence and passion) is an emoting demon -- Mildred Pierce run amok. When she faces down the townsfolk, Hayden looks at the scene with such obvious disbelief that he establishes instant rapport with the audience; he, too, seems to be asking, "What the hell is going on here?" Mercedes McCambridge is a pinched-faced, possessed pixie: One realizes what impelled William Friedkin to use her voice for the devil's in The Exorcist.

Meanwhile, apart from the sexual theatrics, such tried-and-true Western characters as Royal Dano and John Carradine as well as Ward Bond, carry on as though still performing for John Ford or John Huston. Carradine has some of the movie's funniest lines; when he calls himself part of the furniture, he seems to be commenting on a character actor's trade. And when he dies in Vienna's defense, he says he knows it's the first time he's done anything important because everyone is looking at him.

Admission is $5. The show starts at noon tomorrow. Information: www.thecharles.com

Cinema Sundays

Cinema Sundays at the Charles this week presents Secretary, a loose adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's story about a masochistic woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who finds herself -- in more ways than one -- in a submissive-dominant relationship with her lawyer boss (James Spader). Bagels and coffee are served starting at 9:45; the show starts at 10:35. Admission is $15. Information: www.cinemasundays.com.

Norton shows `Dragon'

Local and national acting hero Edward Norton will be the host at a benefit screening of his latest film, Red Dragon -- the Baltimore-set prequel to Silence of the Lambs, filmed on location in Charm City -- at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Senator Theatre. The $100 admission includes a champagne reception. Proceeds benefit brain tumor research at the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurosurgery. Tickets: 410-516-6234 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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