Proto-Feminist Western/Melodrama: “Johnny Guitar” (1954) starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, & Mercedes McCambridge

Sam: [to the two men in the kitchen] Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.

Vienna (Joan Crawford- 50 y.o.) has spent nearly 5 years to built a saloon outside of Southwestern town. She hopes to build her own town once the railroad comes through, but most of the locals want her gone. When four men hold up a stagecoach and kill a man, the sheriff and community leaders, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge- 38 y.o.) come to the saloon to grab four of Vienna’s friends, incl. their leader- Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady- just 30 y.o.) This was the time when when Ernest Borgnine (aged 37) was playing tough/villainous guys; he’s the hot-headed Bart Lonergan. Royal Dano is Corey, the ailing man true to the Dancin’ Kid, who will get a lot of empathy w/ his performance. Veteran character actor John Carradine (aged 48) plays the loyal caretaker of the saloon- Old Tom. Vienna stands strong against the posse of haters; she is aided by a newcomer- Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden- 38 y.o.)- who is NOT what he seems.

Vienna: Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?

A proto-feminist hero is a female who usually fights against society’s expectations of her; this is a term from the 20th c. As some viewers have noted, Vienna stands for progress and new ideas; the wealthy ranchers- Emma and Mr. McIvers (Ward Bond)- are trying to stop that progress which threatens their way of life. While Vienna and her friends are dressed in bright colors (a rarity for Western movies), the posse is dressed in black. The posse is led by the (repressed/petite) Emma; her voice is full of with fire and brimstone. We learn that Johnny met Vienna when she was working in an Oklahoma City saloon years ago; also from other lines, there is no doubt to her being a former prostitute. Jealousy and rejection compel Emma to destroy both her rival Vienna and her unrequited love- the Dancin’ Kid. Hayden does a fine job here; he and and Crawford have good chemistry in their scenes together. Crawford seems to be in control at all times; she tells Johnny when to play and the Dancin’ Kid when to dance. Even when there is a noose around her neck, she stays strong and the men refuse to hang her (until Emma steps in). As one astute viewer commented: “Emma is also a woman in control, but of external forces; on the inside, emotions, fears, and frustrations dominate.”

Vienna: [to Johnny Guitar bitterly] A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.

According to director Nicholas Ray, he began shooting the younger actress’ scenes in the early morning before Crawford got on set, as Crawford was very jealous of McCambridge. Ray was quite unhappy during the filming and later admitted: “Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning.” Crawford, who had bought the rights to the novel and sold it Republic Pictures, initially wanted Claire Trevor or Barbara Stanwyck (her friend) to play Emma. The actresses fought both on and off camera; one night (in a drunken rage) Crawford threw the costumes worn by McCambridge along an Arizona highway! McCambridge (who also played a strong woman in Giant) later claimed that Crawford attempted to blacklist her. Hayden said: “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” Crawford referred to Hayden as “the biggest pill in Hollywood.” Francois Truffaut said it reminded him of The Beauty and the Beast w/ Hayden being the beauty- LOL! Check out this film if you want to see a unique Western and don’t mind a big dose of melodrama.

[1] …I think Nick Ray and Phil Yordan decided the story was so ridiculous that they would just concentrate on the emotional elements, also bringing out the pure fantasy (going behind the waterfall to find a hidden fortress, the heroine running from the fire in her white satin dress, etc.) that is the best element of all great film.

[2] Weird and hysterical Western with Freudian touches, dreamlike emotionalism and magnificent dialogue in which is blended domination, humiliation and a deadly confrontation- resulting to be a fascinating and melodramatic film.

Love and hate are woven into two protagonists, the fallen angel Joan Crawford and the spinster landowner Mercedes McCambridge; both of them share a mythical confrontation.

[3] The film starts as a western, but it simply doesn’t conform to that genre, instead it is a weirdly matriarchal piece where the traditional roles are almost roundly reversed and the whole film has an otherworldly feel to it. […] The western clichés become secondary to these relationships and the director seems to prefer these to any lynching or shoot out.

The full colour of the film gives it a gaudy, otherworldly appeal that is very enjoyable. Fires range in terrible, hellish reds, while shadows divide scenes of emotional complexity.

[4] A western without savages, cavalry, rodeos, and the usual John Ford stuff. A different western, ahead of its time, and very misunderstood by the public then, but, fortunately, reborn from the limbo and forgiveness, rediscovered by new generations, and still alive, fresh as in its first day, and always inmortal.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Yojimbo” directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961) & “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) directed by Sergio Leone

Better if all these men were dead. Think about it! – Tagline for Yojimbo

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is a middle-aged traveling samurai (AKA ronin) who comes to a small town in 19th c. Japan. After learning from the old innkeeper that this town is divided between two rival gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. Then a younger man, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, arrives in town w/ a gun. Insults fly, as do swords, and (selflessly) Sanjuro decides to help a kidnapped woman reunite w/ her husband and young son. Sanjuro survives a brutal beating and hides out in an abandoned temple. He returns to town after learning that the innkeeper has been beaten for helping him escape. In the “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars (AFoD), a drifter gunman w/ no name (AKA Joe) played by Clint Eastwood (in his first starring role at age 34) arrives in the Mexican village of San Miguel. He befriends the elderly owner of the local bar, Silvanito. Joe learns that the town is dominated by two gangster lords: John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè). After Joe kills 4 men in Baxter’s gang, he’s offered a job by Ramón’s brother, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp). Of course, Joe also decides to play both sides off each other.

This is the man with no name. Danger fits him like a glove. -Tag line for AFoD

Sergio Leone was inspired by Yojimbo (“bodyguard” in Japanese) to make his movie (which has a similar plot). Leone didn’t officially get permission for the remake, which was copyrighted Akira Kurosawa, so the Japanese director sued him and delayed the release of AFoD until 1967 (3 yrs). Leone had to pay Kurosawa a sum and 15% of the profits. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns, incl. High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). He was also influenced by the film noir The Glass Key (1942). (I’ll have to check that out!) Kurosawa came up w/ the (darkly comic) idea of the dog carrying the human hand to show that Sanjuro was in a dangerous town. Kurosawa told Mifune that his character was like a wolf or a dog; he told Nakadai that his character was like a snake. Mifune came up with Sanjuro’s trademark shoulder twitch. Composer Masaru Sato was instructed by Kurosawa to write “whatever you like” as long as it wasn’t the usual period samurai film music. This film is part of the jidai-geki (“period drama”) genre which were usually set during the Edo Period. As for the violence (esp. sword fighting)- it’s done so fast!

I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve never been to Spain. I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never been to any of the countries (co-producing) this film. The worst I can come out of this is a nice little trip. I’ll go over there and learn some stuff. I’ll see how other people make films in other countries. -Clint Eastwood, recalling his thinking after getting his role

In AFoD, we see Eastwood’s (now trademark) squint; it was caused by the combination of the sun and high-wattage arc lamps on set in Spain. The producers chose Spain- it was 25% cheaper than shooting in Italy. Eastwood (looking good) brought some pieces for his costume from home: black jeans, boots, hat, and cigars (though he was a non-smoker). At first, Eastwood had some major disagreements w/ Leone, particularly over the script. After convincing Leone to cut his dialogue to a minimum, the men began to collaborate better. Eastwood’s performance would later become a trademark of his Westerns and crime films. This was Leone’s first time working w/ composer Ennio Morricone; the (now iconic) music contributed much to its success. The theme song was originally composed by Morricone as a lullaby.

[after saving Marisol and her family and giving them money]

Marisol: Why do you do it for us?

Joe: Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one to there to help. Now get moving.

Yojimbo is among the films in Roger Ebert’s list of The Great Movies. There are many creative creative shots, incl. one where Sanjuro is perched high above the two gangs as they (comically) threaten each other on the street below. Both Sanjuro and Joe (AKA The Man With No Name) are men of few words; however, some of the looks that Mifune makes are priceless (revealing this thoughts). The scene where Joe faces off with Ramón using the boiler plate as a bulletproof vest in AFoD is being watched by Biff in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and then re-created by Marty (Michael J. Fox) in its sequel Back to the Future Part III (1990). Marty dons an outfit similar to Eastwood’s and uses the name “Clint Eastwood”- LOL! In S2 E5 of HBO’s Westworld, you will also see influences from both of these films.

[1] The fact that this masterless samurai has deep compassion for strangers is different than most modern action movies alone. Toshiro Mifune is magical in the lead role. His presence is felt all throughout the film even when he isn’t on camera. All film buffs should watch this film, it is a perfect example of a director and actor with confidence in their craft.

[2] If I had to choose only one movie for film students to learn from, this would be it. Other films may be more profound, or their imagery more groundbreaking, but this one is so tightly constructed that nothing – not a frame, word, or gesture – is extraneous.

Kurosawa meticulously infuses every detail with meaning; there’s a purpose behind every shot, and aspiring directors should pay close attention (why is the camera slightly tilted? why are there concubines in the background?)

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: Yojimbo

[1] This is the beginning of the Man With No Name series. The visuals are beautiful, the character of the Man With No Name menacing and mysterious, the score is brilliant and the action is a blast. The one that launched a thousand copycat versions…

[2] see the nascent Leone visual style here, with the close-up style and contrast of close-ups and long shots appearing. This alone sets it apart from previous films, westerns and non-westerns alike, and still provides for great visual treats that one can appreciate today.

This films also marks the first brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. It is here that he introduced the lonely whistling, guitar music, chorus, and unusual combinations and styles that developed into the music that has become in the U.S. synonymous with westerns and duels in the same way that Leone’s visuals and themes have.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: AFoD

“Tombstone” (1993) starring Kurt Russell & Val Kilmer

Doc Holliday: Forgive me if I don’t shake hands. (Isn’t this relatable after quarantine life!? LOL!)

After success cleaning up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) moves to Tombstone, AZ, looking to get rich. He meets his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as well as his old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). A band of outlaws- The Cowboys- are causing problems in the area w/ random acts of violence. In time, The Cowboys (who wear red sashes on their waists) come into confrontation with Holliday and the Earps, leading to a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. I had forgotten that there were two (legendary) actors here- Charlton Heston (the elderly rancher Henry Hooker) and Robert Mitchum (the narrator)- wow!

Morgan Earp: Look at all the stars. You look up and you think, “God made all this and He remembered to make a little speck like me.” It’s kind of flattering, really.

There are so many good actors in this movie (and I heard ALL the mustaches were real)- some famous and others more known for character roles. The villains are headed up by Curly Bill (Powers Boothe- who formed part of the ensemble in Deadwood), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn- went to the Univ. of Arizona for several yrs), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), and his lil bro Billy Clanton (Thomas Haden Church- who usually does comedy). Wyatt’s wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler Nicholson) has become addicted to laudanum. Virgil’s (much younger) wife Allie (Paula Malcolmson) is a Irish immigrant; this actress was also in Deadwood (her real accent is Irish). Morgan’s wife Louisa (Lisa Collins) was married to Billy Zane (who plays Mr. Fabian, the actor). Wyatt’s love interest is the independent-minded actress- Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany). The mayor of the town is Mr. Behan (Jon Tenney); this actor has appeared in many cop shows. A chubby Billy Bob Thornton plays a hot-headed (but also cowardly) gambler. 90210 fans will get a kick out of seeing Jason Priestly (a young deputy). Doc Holliday is joined by his lady friend/fellow gambler Kate (Joanna Pacula).

Wyatt Earp: [Vigil has agreed to become Tombstone’s town marshall, upsetting Wyatt] What in the hell are you doin’? I told you we weren’t gettin’ involved!

Virgil Earp: You got us involved when you brought us here.

Wyatt Earp: Now you hold on a minute, Virg!

Virgil Earp: Hold on nothin’! I walk around this town and look these people in the eyes. It’s just like someone’s slappin’ me in the face! These people are afraid to walk down the street, and I’m tryin’ to make money off that like some goddamn vulture! If we’re gonna have a future in this town, it’s gotta have some law and order!

Russell (who has worked in Hollywood since a young boy) said that after original director Kevin Jarre (also the screenwriter) was fired, he directed a majority of the movie. George P. Cosmatos (who was not very comfortable w/ the English language) oversaw the filming, though he has directing credit. The film was nearly cast with Richard Gere as Wyatt Earp and Willem Dafoe as Doc Holliday- LOL! All the actors do a fine job, though Kilmer probably has the best lines. Both Holliday and Ringo are educated men; they even argue in Latin.

Wyatt Earp [to Morgan]: In all that time workin’ those cow towns, I was only ever mixed up in one shootin’, just one! But a man lost his life and I took it! You don’t know how that feels, and believe me boy, you don’t ever want to know. Not ever!

As Wyatt explains to his younger (idealistic) brother Morgan, there is really nothing exciting about killing another person. Wyatt is reluctant to take on a lawman role again; his older brother Virgil is the one who changes his mind. Once his brothers are affected, Wyatt quickly springs into action! This is a fun, action-packed, yet also touching story about brotherly/familial love, friendship, romance, and justice. I esp. liked the various horse riding scenes, which go from playful/romantic to quite tense/dangerous.

[1] Throughout the entire film, his [Kilmer’s] acting and character embellishments are so nuanced and well done that by movies end, we feel his loss in a very personal way. Credit must also go out the the costumers and make-up artists for their contribution to the overall effect of his role. All the way through the film, he looks sickly, pale and world-weary. His mannerisms and intensity of gaze profoundly establish this character as a focal point in this production. …I consider this role as probably the very best for Val Kilmer. It required subtlety and careful restraint and made the viewer believe that we weren’t watching an actor merely regurgitating lines and hitting their foot-marks. I, for one, was entranced by the carefully studied body language and facial expressions…the sweaty desperation of a man who sensed his own mortality but strove to enact his own justice for justices sake. This was just very well done!

[2] …speaking as a woman, this is by no means just a guy’s flick. It’s been one of my favorite films since the day it came out. It’s got everything- drama, romance, action, and an honest to goodness story. There are even interesting themes, like the moral dilemma that Wyatt finds himself in– Is he compelled to help fight the Cowboys even though he’s “retired” and just wants to live out his life in peace? Is there a moral equivalence between killing for justice and killing for retribution? How far can a man go to sacrifice his own integrity and better judgment?

The love story simply served its purpose in helping viewers to better understand the character of Wyatt. Also the friendship between Wyatt and Doc was portrayed tenderly… And okay, as a woman, let me just say that there is no one sexier than Sam Elliot. Man alive, if there ever was a person born to portray a cowboy, that guy is IT. If you’ve never seen a Western, or are not a fan, try this movie. It will make a believer out of you.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“3:10 to Yuma” (1957) starring Glenn Ford & Van Heflin

Alice: It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch.

Dan Evans: Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch.

After a stagecoach robbery/shootout, notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) is captured in a small town by a sheriff and few locals. One of them is a struggling rancher/family man, Dan Evans (Van Heflin), who volunteers to escort Wade to the nearest town w/ a railway station. Dan desperately needs the $200 which the stagecoach company’s owner offered as a reward. Once the two men are holed up in the hotel to await the 3:10 to Yuma, a battle of wills ensues. All the while, Ben’s gang is gathering to break him out.

Emmy: Funny, some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they’re with you for the rest of your life.

Even if you’re not a big fan of Westerns, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this must-see film! The screenplay (which includes sly moments of humor) was adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard. There are gorgeous shots of the desert, intimate close-ups, music, exciting action sequences w/ horses and guns. Although most Westerns by this time were being produced in color, director (Delmer Daves) and cinematographer (Charles Lawton Jr.) chose to shoot in black and white.

I thought all the actors (including the supporting ones and two boys) hit the right notes. Ford was originally offered the role of Dan Evans; he refused and suggested himself for the role of Ben Wade. This is one of Ford’s (rare) bad guy roles; he’s still charming and likable. Heflin (who worked on many Westerns) and Ford play off each other very well. Ford has sparkling chemistry w/ Felicia Farr (the beautiful/lonely barmaid, Emmy). There are touching scenes between Heflin and Leora Dana (his devoted/refined wife, Alice).

Ben Wade: I mean, I don’t go around just shootin’ people down… I work quiet, like you.

Dan Evans: All right, so you’re quiet like me. Well then, shut up like me.

The scenes of Contention City were shot in Old Tucson, which is not far from where I grew up. Some critics/viewers consider this a film of a man reclaiming his masculinity. I also see it as a community struggling to do the right thing, though under enormous threat. This film, along w/ High Noon (1952), was a deciding factor in Howard Hawks deciding to make Rio Bravo (1959), a return to more optimistic Westerns. This is one of Patton Oswalt’s favorite movies; he introduced it on TCM several years ago.

 

Red River (1948) starring John Wayne & Montgomery Clift

[1] The film is considered a Western take on The Mutiny on the Bounty. The relationship between Tom Dunson and Matt Garth is deeply complex. Although they’re prepared to kill each other, deep down they still respect for one another. This relationship is based on control, idealism, respect, and trust.

[2] Wayne and Clift play beautifully off against each other. Father and surrogate son, first working together and then having a big difference of opinion on the cattle drive. Clift started a film career in Red River playing sensitive people who you can only trod on just so long before they take action. 

[3] If anyone doubts John Wayne as an actor of note then they need look no further than his performance here as Dunson. Tough and durable in essence the character is, but Wayne manages to fuse those traits with a believable earthy determination that layers the character perfectly. With Wayne all the way, matching him stride for stride, is Montgomery Clift as Matthew Garth, sensitive without being overly so, it’s the perfect foil to Wayne’s machismo showing. Walter Brennan and John Ireland also shine bright in support, while a special mention has to go to a wonderful turn from Joanne Dru as Tess Millay…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Fourteen years after starting his cattle ranch in Texas, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is ready to drive his 10,000 head of cattle to market (1,000 mi. away in Missouri). Back then Dunson, his sidekick Nadine Groot (veteran character actor Walter Brennan) and a teenage boy, Matthew Garth (an orphan/survivor of an Indian attack on a wagon train) started off with only two head of cattle. Dunson is a harsh task master, demanding a great deal from the men signed up for the drive. Matt is a grown man now (who fought in the Civil War); he has his own mind and soon runs up against Dunson who won’t listen to advice from anyone. One of the drovers, Cherry Valance (John Ireland), proposes that they head toward Abilene. When the cattle stampede, Dunson goes to “gun-whip” one of the hands, but Matt intervenes. The men start taking sides and Matt ends up in charge w/ Dunson vowing to kill him. In the scene where Clift tells him he’s taking over the drive, Wayne turned his back on him and said in a low voice, “I’m gonna kill you, Matt.” This went against director Howard Hawks’ idea to have Wayne cringe, but the actor refused to appear cowardly and played it his way. The improvised moment left Clift astonished, but Hawks liked it (and it was used in the final cut).

Bet I ate ten pounds in the last sixteen days. Before this shenanigan is over, I’ll probably eat enough land to incorporate me in the Union. The state of Groot. -Groot complains (re: traveling through dirt roads)

You’re fast with that gun, Matt. Awful fast. But your heart’s soft. Too soft. Might get you hurt some day. -Cherry comments / Could be. I wouldn’t count on it. -Matt replies

There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch? Cherry jokes w/ Matt

This is the kind of Western for the classic movie fan who avoids (or doesn’t usually enjoy) the Western genre! After seeing Wayne’s performance, rival director John Ford commented to Hawks: “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” This led to Ford casting Wayne in more complex/multi-layered roles, incl. The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Hawks originally offered the role of Dunson to Gary Cooper, but he declined it (b/c he didn’t believe the ruthless nature of the character would’ve suited his screen image). This was the debut of Clift (26 y.o. during filming and looking gorgeous), who was known as a talented theater actor. He learned to ride horses while at military prep school, but that was a different kind of riding than this role. Hawks always had high praise for how hard Clift worked (on his cowboy skills) for this picture. After seeing the final version of Red River, Clift found his performance mediocre, but recognized it as a star-making role. He later said: “I watched myself in Red River and knew I was going to be famous, so I decided I would get drunk anonymously one last time.” Burt Lancaster (a former acrobat) was first offered the role of Matt, but he had already signed on to star in the iconic film noir, The Killers (1946), which was his debut. 

There was concern that the leads (Wayne and Clift) would’t get along, since they were opposed on all political issues and both were outspoken on their views. The actors agreed not to discuss politics during shooting. Clift sometimes joined Wayne and Hawks in the nightly poker games they organized. Clift later said: “They tried to draw me into their circle, but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me b/c it seemed so forced and unnecessary.” In Life Magazine, Wayne described Clift as “an arrogant little bastard.”