Joan Crawford plays neither a whore nor a sheriff's wife. Mercedes McCambridge, meanwhile, isn't a rape victim, bar wench or schoolmarm.

Johnny Guitar

The Wild West isn't exactly a friendly place for women in cinema. If they're lucky, they get to wear a pretty dress while being menaced by a dusty cowpoke until their knight in shining rawhide shows up to save the day. The ones who aren't tied to a train track have bleaker career prospects: as rape victims, prostitutes, punching bags, bar wenches, nags or wagon-trail dysentery factories.

So when Crawford's Vienna emerges, gun in hand, during Johnny Guitar's opening scenes, it's arresting. Even more arresting is when all the men stop talking and start taking orders from this saloon owner. Even Sterling Hayden's titular guitar- and gunslinger is under Vienna's sirenlike spell. They work for her. They fight for her. They do as they're told.

On the other end of the spectrum is McCambridge's Emma, a bloodthirsty townie who leads her own gaggle of emasculated cowpokes and hard-asses, barking orders in an attempt to get Vienna run out of town. Or lynched.

The film sets itself up as the story of a man rescuing the woman he loves. Hayden—tall, square-jawed and throaty—is the picture of a Western hero, an outlaw who's sworn off violence and rides headlong to help the woman he spurned. Instead, as soon as he arrives, his machismo is stomped under Vienna's boots. 

But Vienna isn't a domineering shrew, either. Her influence is forged from respect. She is brave and generous. She takes in outcasts and offers them friendship and whiskey. When it comes to the fight-or-flight climax, she decides to split her fortune with the three men in her employ. 

In addition to being the first feminist-leaning Western, Ray's film is an allegory for Joseph McCar-thy's communist witch hunt. Emma is a hilariously over-the-top version of the senator who bullies men into making false accusations. Grilling a banker who was just robbed, Emma goads out of him an allegation against the innocent Vienna. Maniacally grinning, she then gathers her posse to set fire to Vienna's home, where she stands in a Christ-like pose, relishing the agony she's wrought. McCambridge nails it with slimy, hammy aplomb—it's a shockingly effective moment.

Before Johnny Guitar, cinema hadn't presented such powerful women using their allure to very different ends. Women orchestrate virtually everything in the film, whether it's Vienna commanding Johnny to play his git-box on cue or Emma forcing the hands of law enforcement to benefit her own brand of vengeance. These women aren't victims or objects—they make the world turn.

Also Showing: 

  • The NW Film Center kicks off its “Mad Romance: The Films of Leos Carax” series, featuring all five of the French auteur’s films. First up are moody romance Boy Meets Girl and crime thriller Mauvais Sang. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. May 23-25. See for schedule.
  • With the mercury (maybe) rising, it’s the perfect time to revisit Jaws, the movie that defined the summer blockbuster—and remains one of the best ever. Academy Theater. May 23-39.
  • The Hollywood’s “This Is Your Theatre”—in which viewers pick what they want to see on the big screen—this month features Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Saturday, May 24.
  • Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and The Butter Battle Book seem like hyperrealism compared to his 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a tale of enslaved children forced by a nefarious doctor to play the world’s largest piano. It’s terrifying. But somehow less so than the time Mike Myers played the Cat. Hollywood Theatre. 2:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, May 24-25.
  • Before he was played by Mark Ruffalo, Ed Norton and Eric Bana, The Incredible Hulk was portrayed by a gnarled, green-painted Lou Ferrigno. The original TV pilot will screen tonight, along with old-school 1970s commercials. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Monday, May 26.
  • Anyone who was ever a 12-year-old boy watching Skinemax through a blurred cable broadcast knows the name Emanuelle. Now, the Grindhouse Film Festival unearths a 35 mm print of Emanuelle Around the World, the holy grail of the softcore porn world. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 27.