Hulu tends to get overlooked when it comes to streaming availability. It’s neither a boutique service for classics and arthouse, as FilmStruck was, Criterion Channel will be, and Kanopy is, nor the Big Bad/Savior of Cinema that Netflix wants to present itself as. But Hulu actually has some strange, excellent films, if you spend some time looking for them. And it happens to have Johnny Guitar, the 1954 Nicholas Ray western starring Joan Crawford and a guitar-wielding Sterling Hayden as they face off against the House Un-American Activities Committee…I mean, a posse.Crawford is Vienna, a fierce saloonkeeper at the edge of town, who’s constantly in conflict with the local cattlemen thanks to her support of the incoming railroad and the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a notorious outlaw. Then Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) comes into town, toting his guitar and refusing to carry a gun. After some mistaken identities, the Kid is suspected of holding up a stagecoach, creating the perfect pretext for the townsfolk, led by John McIvers (Ward Bond) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), to attempt to drive Vienna out of town. The whole thing culminates in a posse hunt, attempted hanging, and a shootout to end all shootouts.
Johnny Guitar is almost an anti-western, shot in bright, lurid colors, with a hero who never carries a gun and a woman who does. The main conflict arises not between two men but between two women, building to a bizarre and fascinating climax. There are numerous undercurrents to the film that directly parallel the McCarthy hearings and Hollywood blacklist. This also underscores the casting of Hayden, who had been considered a “fellow traveler” during the blacklist and struggled with his personal willingness to name names when he was called before HUAC. Meanwhile, Ward Bond, a notorious arch-conservative, leads the posse that wants to (erroneously) lynch anyone who opposes them, egged on by Emma Small, herself out for personal revenge. It’s a deft little plot and commentary, and Ray makes certain to communicate the subtext every chance he gets, to the degree that it’s practically just text.
This is a wild film, playing like a western melodrama as it makes use of Crawford’s formidable and often terrifying range, with moments of camp near-absurdity that then break down into a sobering reality. The conflict between Vienna and Emma is fantastically wrought, overpowering every scene they share, and creating a strange sort of a dynamic that shifts the film towards feminism, thanks to Crawford’s powerful personality and the bubbling conflict, on set and off, between her and McCambridge. The men are largely incidental, including Johnny Guitar himself, while the women dominate both the screen and the plot.
Johnny Guitar isn’t your grandfather’s western, nor is it John Wayne’s. The Duke wouldn’t have gotten near such a subversive, female narrative, which is about the best recommendation for Johnny Guitar I can make. Go now to Hulu, and be amazed.