When it was released in 1954, Americans didn’t know what to do with Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Audiences and critics alike seemed to grapple, uneasily, with the film’s central tension: Is this a Western, or a melodrama? (Yes, and yes.) They couldn’t make sense of what Ray was delivering, so everyone threw their hands up and hated the film. Back then, the two genres were the lingua franca of Hollywood, from Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon to Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. But both were kept on separate shelves. The Western, with its sweaty gunfights, was the apotheosis of manhood. The melodrama, with its emotional breakthroughs, was engineered for housewives. The twain hadn’t yet met. Johnny Guitar shattered well-defined genre axioms, and short circuited the brains of viewers at the time.

Well, at least those on this side of the Atlantic. The French immediately adored Johnny Guitar. Chalk it up to a lack of cultural baggage, or better cinematic taste, but Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut understood its greatness from the jump. The latter called it, “the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream.” True. Johnny Guitar is, to echo Walt Disney, a fantasia. Everything is heightened to the extreme – colors, landscapes, costumes and set pieces – to the point where nothing, except these characters’ big emotions, seems real. Clearly, Godard and Truffaut were taking notes.

Boiled down to its essence, Johnny Guitar is about an individual versus the mob. The individual in question is Vienna, an imperious saloon owner, who is brought to magnificent life by Joan Crawford. It’s hard to overstate Crawford’s brilliance portraying a modern woman, literally fighting for her livelihood against a gang of backward townies in the Old West. The performance is so assured, so steely, so breathtaking that her Vienna is the obvious blueprint for Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley and, somewhat less heroically, Miranda Priestly. Johnny Guitar’s central flaw is that it’s named after one of its dullest characters – one of Vienna’s former lovers – and not Vienna herself.

The head of the bloodthirsty mob, and Vienna’s primary antagonist, is another woman: Emma Small (the extraordinary Mercedes McCambridge), an equal and opposite force of nature. Though Emma has personal grievances with Vienna, her ultimate concern is with her foe’s support of bringing modernity to their remote town. “You heard her tell how they’re gonna run the railroad through here,” she exclaims to her hapless posse of men, “bring in thousands of new people from the East. Farmers. Dirt farmers. Squatters.” The bile seems so fresh. “They’ll push us out,” she barks, wild-eyed. “So you better wake up. Or you’re gonna find you and your women and your kids squeezed between barbed wires and fence posts. Is that what you’re waiting for? Well, I’m not.” All that’s missing is a golden escalator and a reference to Mexican rapists.

Joan Crawford’s Vienna is well ahead of her time, and so is Johnny Guitar. Or, to be more precise, both are universal. Nicholas Ray would go on to direct James Dean in his final role, Rebel Without a Cause, another parable concerned with an outsider. Though less iconic, Johnny Guitar is the better film, one that endures with a minor-key thrum of unfortunate timelessness.

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