Cinematic Irony: The Strange Case of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar
Westerns and “Westerns”
There is little question that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is immediately recognizable as an instance of a genre that had become quite important to Hollywood well into the 1950s. It is a Western. It is set in the West in the post-Civil War nineteenth century (probably in New Mexico; Albuquerque is mentioned a couple of times), people ride horses, drink whiskey in saloons, dress in the usual Western clothes and wear six shooters. There are recognizable character types: the saloon woman (i.e., prostitute and/or madame), the gunslinger, the young gun eager to prove himself, an incorrigible, thoroughly evil villain (in a black hat, no less), a vengeful posse (also all in black, as if some horde of ancient furies1 ), and a horrific lynching. The gunslinger is also a recognizable subtype; one who no longer wears his guns and appears to be trying to quit, in the manner of Gregory Peck in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), and Gary Cooper in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958).2 There are the crimes we associate with Westerns: the stagecoach hold up, the bank robbery. There is the familiar, final, decisive shootout between two principals. And there is the invocation of elements of the mythic narrative form common in many Westerns.3 That is, “the railroad is coming,” and everyone in the frontier community realizes that this will change everything, creating a situation both of anxiety and opportunity. Usually this event presages a fundamental transition from a situation with weak or no rule of law to a full integration into modern commercial and law-abiding society (with its families, schools, churches, small farmers and shopkeepers), and it is resisted by large landowners and cattlemen, who exist as feudal barons and are unwilling to surrender authority. (The paradigm here could be King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1958). There are similar elements in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance .) This is often the epochal transition that gives the Western at once its mythic universality and its specific inflection in an American experience of the frontier and of its disappearance. In this film, the theme is pictorially invoked, or, to introduce the main theme in the following, rather more “cited” imagistically as a theme than straightforwardly assumed. The presence of the images seems too self-conscious to be “natural.” For instance, over the back of the bar there is a large replica of a railroad engine.
The future, it would seem. Over the entryway to the kitchen (the frame of the opening doorway does not reach the ceiling) there is a replica of a stagecoach.
The present and past, perhaps, but again rather self-consciously displayed, as if primarily decorative. The reference seems to address audience expectations about classic Westerns, foregrounded as such, rather than to permit a Western narrative framework to shape audience expectations.
Moreover, if we start with this last element and work through these familiar elements, virtually every aspect of this traditional framework is present, but “off” in some way, so much so that the excess emotion, elaborate, self-conscious emphasis on costumes, posed and theatrical sets and staging, have seemed to some to cross the line over into camp, or at least near self-parody. At the very least one can say that these major “Westerns” conventions seem, as just noted, more “quoted” or “mentioned” than simply invoked or used, and therein lie issues deeper than genre conventions alone. For example, the railroad is coming, but the work of constructing it is not presented in the usual way, as an opening from the civilized East, but rather as a closing of the West. When the robber gang at the end try to escape (the leader says they are headed for California; that is, they are headed west), they find that construction has temporarily closed the pass in that direction. That construction is presented as a series of spectacular explosions that seal off the direction that at one point in American history seemed ever available–west.4 Moreover, in this film what the railroad is bringing is not so much “the East” in the sense of culture, domesticity, boundaries, the rule of law and so forth, but rather, in the starkest terms, a new social reality built on money, the world of speculation, investment and so the kind of social mobility eagerly embraced by Vienna, the ex-prostitute played by Joan Crawford (how “ex” is not all that clear), a new world where a clever ex-prostitute might quickly become the richest person in town, and a corresponding anxiety among the forces of traditional rectitude so oddly led in this movie by a woman so hysterical, hateful, and blood-thirsty that she seems more like some psychological force of nature than human, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).
The central social conflict in the film is one between the townspeople, led by Emma and to some extent by a cattleman, John McIvers (Ward Bond), and the saloon owner, Vienna, who, more than anyone in the town, is pro-railroad. Toward the very end of the film, Emma does (finally) invoke the archetypal fear of the coming of the railroad (“they’ll push us out,” bring “farmers, dirt farmers, squatters,” “barbed wire and fence posts”) but by this point it is obvious that this is somewhat pro forma, again, strangely, as if quoted, not meant; “what characters say at some point in a Western like this.” This impression is heightened because the logic of her claim is absurd on the face of it; as if killing Vienna and destroying her saloon will have any effect at all on the massive railroad enterprise inexorably making its way toward the area. And this doesn’t seem any part of her real motivation, which is much more complicated and much darker. For we have seen for nearly two hours that the townspeople have allowed themselves to be led by Emma against Vienna because of Emma’s personal and intense hatred of Vienna (much more on that to come) and because of what appears to be, on the part of everyone else, resentment and envy that Vienna has acted cleverly, far more cleverly than they have, by buying real estate and building her emporium right smack in the path of the coming railroad. This explains the otherwise bizarre totally isolated location of the saloon. She stands to get very rich either if she sells or continues to build in the area that will soon be a depot. (She has, like a modern urban planner, an elaborate mockup of the whole town she envisions coming soon to her doorstep. Our sense of her strength, authority and above all, commercial competence is never challenged in the film.)
So Vienna is only a “saloon owner” strategically; in essence, she is an investor and speculator, and clearly a very good one. (One could say that she gives the old cliché, “a prostitute with a heart of gold,” a whole new meaning.) Soon after we first see her, we find her having dinner with a railroad executive. She is trying to persuade him to invest with her in more local real estate before the railroad arrives and prices escalate. Despite the fact that there is indeed a very great deal of money to be made (when Vienna asks him how much her property will be worth, he responds, “How much is Albuquerq’ worth?”), he has already sensed that there are many in the town who violently object to Vienna, and he clearly does not have the courage for such a fight (courage that Vienna has), and he declines. But what is obvious in the scene is that he genuinely respects Vienna–as a business equal, or even superior–for her acumen and strength. Given the usual treatment of the “saloon woman” the scene is also remarkable for how de-sexualized and professional it all is.5 No flirting, no cajoling, and this even though Vienna has no qualms about, is not embarrassed about, admitting without qualification that she got her information about the railroad’s route from sleeping with the surveyor who planned the route.6 (“We exchanged confidences,” she says; what we would call “insider trading.”)
The “townsfolk,” or the anonymous mass that follows Emma and McIvers around (it includes a well-meaning but, typically for “pre-railroad Westerns,” weak and ineffective marshal)7 also seem responsive to Emma’s nearly psychotic hatred of Vienna’s “loose” virtue. It is obvious that Vienna is a former prostitute and has from many years of plying that trade built up the considerable stake required to buy the land and build the saloon. (Crawford was forty-seven when the movie was made in 1953 and there is no real pretense in the film that she is anything but that age.) This is infuriating enough to Emma and apparently the townsfolk. (Emma says to Vienna, “You’re nothing but a railroad tramp; not fit to live among decent people.”) But it appears to be especially infuriating that Vienna is not ashamed of her past, does not deny it, and thereby infuriates everyone exponentially; even, as we shall see, her former and perhaps future lover, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden). The stark and ironic truth of her fundamental claim–that she is no different than they are, or even that she is much better at “what they are” than they are–is what seems so infuriating; what must be repressed, silenced. This is not to say that, finally, bourgeois respectability is not important to Vienna. It certainly is. “Vienna” is likely a pseudonym and already expresses her desire for old world status and standing.8 As Victor Perkins has pointed out, this aspiration is embodied by the elaborate and somewhat out of place chandelier in the saloon, the one Emma intuitively realizes must be destroyed.9 But Vienna clearly wants to buy that standing, on the assumption that money is always the real basis of social status. One could say that Vienna believes in, is the representation of, absolute exchange value (both as a prostitute and as an investor), and when she is posed against the representation of bourgeois moral rectitude (home, school, church, law) in the person of Emma, remarkably, our sympathies are with the honest, unapologetic speculator, not the hypocritical, resentment-fueled townsfolk. They are either self-deceived or hypocritical about their motives, and those real motives are ugly.
The successful saloon woman is not unheard of in Westerns but is not often associated with Vienna’s frankness and her psychological strength, her command of herself.10 But this variation, almost inversion, rather than straightforward invocation of the “railroad arrival” theme and all that it suggests, and the unusual complexity of the psychological motivation of the characters, is only the beginning of what is “off,” what is both Western mythology, and at the same time its citation and inversion. Most obviously, the main character, Vienna, is a woman, and even more unusually, her main opponent is also a woman, Emma. The climactic duel, the final decisive shootout, is theirs. This is hardly the traditional dénouement.11 There were other actresses from the thirties and forties who could credibly play the lead in a Western (Barbara Stanwyck in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns , for example; or Stanwyck again in Anthony Mann’s The Furies , or perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious ), and there are earlier examples (Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind ), and later (in some ways, Claudia Cardinale in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West ), but none with Crawford’s total self-assertiveness and command,12 and none in such a fundamental, to-the-death struggle with another woman.
Vienna is clearly the heroine of the movie.13 She is wronged but never wrongs, treats her employees with dignity, and unusual equality (if they put in their money she will split evenly with them), and goes to what seems certain death with great bravery and even a kind of hauteur. (This is all so, even though, if we ask a typical “Westerns”-like question–what is all this heroism in the service of?–the clearest answer is simply: profit, her own interest, what she regards, correctly, obviously, as what is rightly hers.) Her former boyfriend, the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) is often petty, lacks any of Vienna’s gravitas and is childish (the way a child might reason: “if they are going to accuse us of a crime, let’s at least commit the crime and get the money”) and Johnny Guitar, we are told with authority twice by Vienna, remains “gun crazy.” This is apparently a polite term for “seriously disturbed,” given that when he hears Turkey (Ben Cooper), the young gun, demonstrating his shooting prowess, he rushes in wildly (as if stimulated by some Pavlovian response), firing rapidly and, according to Vienna, would have recklessly killed the boy had Vienna not stepped between them. Later, after she appears to believe he has changed, he offers to pick off a few of the posse, shoot them from ambush, to weaken their will to go on. Disappointed, she notes yet again, that he is “gun crazy.”14
There are very few characters in Hollywood movies, and certainly nothing remotely similar in other Westerns, as over-the-top insane with sexual jealousy and repressed sexuality as McCambridge’s Emma.15 Ray is willing to go right up to the line of absurdity and parody in his treatment of her. She never simply speaks; she rather hysterically rasps virtually every line, cowing the men around her, none of whom really stands up to her. Much of what she actually charges is simply ludicrous. In the first “invasion” of the townsfolk into the saloon, after a stagecoach robbery in which Emma’s brother is killed, when Emma is trying to make a case that it was the Dancing Kid and his gang who committed the crime, she argues that the Kid “was always eyein’ me,” and that he, the Kid, staged the robbery so that he could kill the protective brother, and so “now he thinks he can get me.” She says all this in such a crazy, deluded way that it is impossible to believe that anyone takes it seriously. It is widely and rightly assumed that the Kid has eyes only for Vienna. Indeed the Kid and Vienna clearly think it is funny that Emma has such a complicated fantasy about the Kid going on and that she doesn’t seem to realize it.16 (This is all, of course, before the implications of that fantasy, much of which must also involve a dose of self-hatred, becomes deadly.) The injustice of her attacks on Vienna–there is never a shred of evidence until, by bad luck, misleading evidence at the end–is always obvious, but never noted by anyone. McIver’s announcement that he, as if an all-powerful tyrant, will simply pass a law that will forbid Vienna’s place from opening, is not seriously challenged by anyone except Vienna.17 And so until the very end and the final duel, Emma actually succeeds, comes within seconds of hanging Vienna.
Finally, moving closer to the surface strangeness of the movie, there are the names, the sets, and the music. The first time Johnny Guitar has to tell someone his name, he pauses a beat and almost smiles when he says (again rather quotes, or says in irony quotes) his new surname. (His real name is Johnny Logan, and he is a very famous and deadly gunfighter.)
When he is asked why he does not wear his guns, he again quotes a phrase as if “from a Western,” as if in ironic quotes: “because I’m not the fastest gun west of the Pecos.” (He quotes rather than speaks a line later, too; outside the bank being robbed: “Besides, I’m a stranger here myself.”)18 And a tough guy, macho leader named The Dancing Kid? The women are going to have a fight to the death and the two male counterparts are “of the arts”? There is a kind of sly knowingness between the men about their names, but Johnny really does play the guitar and, lo and behold, the Kid really does dance! In fact, to mock what every intelligent character seems to realize is Emma’s true motivation–hatred of Vienna because the man she, in self-denial, lusts after, prefers Vienna–he demonstrates his dancing talent by dancing with Emma. And she lets him! She does not pull or wrestle herself away, but sweeps across the floor with the Kid for some time, clearly both bothered and thrilled. The two male names in other words are so flamboyantly non-macho that their use seems to ironically cite the Western tradition of nicknames (the Ringo Kid, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, the Sundance Kid) only to mock them.
Most of the first thirty-five minutes of the movie take place in the main room of Vienna’s saloon and gambling parlor. The setting is immediately eerie. It is empty and deathly quiet when Johnny enters, even though there are two croupiers and a barman at work, or at least ready to work. And we are never given any reason to believe there are ever any customers other than the Kid and his gang. The employees are hardly welcoming and seem overtly hostile to the newcomer. It is as if Johnny has walked onto the stage of some absurdist drama. (The feeling that we are watching a filmed version of a stage play is hard to avoid when the scene is either of the two interiors, the saloon and the hideout. This again contributes to the feeling of a certain staginess, a self-consciousness about conventions, in the film’s representational style. Movies can easily tolerate this “double vision,” wherein we see at the same time the same object as both “Nicholas Ray’s set” and “Vienna’s saloon,” but in this film, the former is more pronounced than usual.) The saloon has been built into an ochre rock formation and that rock has been left exposed at the rear of the saloon. This is likely some indication of Vienna’s tenacity; her insistence that she is anchored to that spot and is not going anywhere.19 And there is that elaborate chandelier and Vienna’s piano, both of which will play an important role later. The set is also huge, much larger than conventional movie portrayals of a saloon. The effect of this is rather more opera than theater, especially since so many different sorts of elements of the mise-en-scène are also so “outsized” and flamboyant. This goes for the costumes too, which are in bold, even extravagant, bright colors. The costume changes for Vienna are the most elaborate and dramatically important. She goes from a conventionally mannish black-shirted pants outfit, complete with six-shooter (when defending herself from the townsfolk),
to a red, alluring evening outfit (the old Vienna perhaps, in her late-night and decisive conversation with Johnny),
to a kind of neutral grey and brown utilitarian outfit (during a period when a normal life with Johnny seemed fleetingly possible),
to that famous spectacular white dress, a final and self-consciously ironic (virginal) gesture.20
It is also her final insistence that not only was she a prostitute, but that there was nothing, nothing at all wrong in having been one. In moral terms, her conscience is clear; that is, absolutely clear, pure, white as the driven snow. All these codes seem so explicit that the film’s romantic and ironic expressivism often dominates any traditional realism.
And as if all this weren’t enough exaggeration, irony, self-reference, and deliberate theatricality, there is a striking moment in the opening scene in the saloon that is clearly intended to upset normal expectations and to encourage the “double vision” just mentioned. After witnessing the stagecoach robbery in which Emma’s brother is killed (Johnny is too far away to identify anyone21), Johnny rides up to Vienna’s (he has been sent for by her after an absence of five years) in a violent dust storm. It is an appropriate opening image for the emotional turmoil, confusion, and unclarity we will see between the two romantic leads. But it prompts Vienna to tell Sam, one of her employees, to light a lantern and hang it outside so that potential customers can see their way to the saloon. (Given the violence of the storm and the thickness of the dust, this is pretty useless, but it is a mark of Vienna’s optimism, for all her hard-headedness and world-weariness.) Ray has Sam walk directly toward the camera and complain about working for a woman, all while looking directly at the camera; that is, at the viewer, violating the first rule of movie acting and destroying any illusion of unobserved observers.22 Ray then, in effect, “corrects” this by showing us that it was a point of view shot, that Sam was walking towards and speaking to Tom (John Carradine),23 Vienna’s trusted kitchen employee.
But the damage has been done, and at the very least the problem of the film’s realism has been raised right at the outset. I would say that here again the effect is that the movie itself, as a “Western,” has been attended to as such, cited, quoted, mentioned, thematized, not allowed to simply play out conventionally and unproblematically.
Victor Young’s music often makes use of the “Johnny Guitar” theme, the song we only hear finally sung with lyrics by Peggy Lee over the closing scene. When that refrain is not playing the music is as “overdone” as much else in the movie, “cuing” our responses too obviously, always opting for lush when spare would have been just as, if not more, effective.24 But the Johnny Guitar theme and the romantic and sometimes melancholic mood set by the music is a reminder that the conflict between Emma and Vienna is only one aspect of the movie’s focus. The other is a love story, or a love that, as Vienna says, “burned up” and was left in “ashes.”25 And that element of the plot, a melodrama inside a Western, functions itself like some resistance to the Western framework, forcing it into near parodic self-reference.
Near to parody, but it never crosses the line. Bazin is right when he notes that “not once does Ray adopt a condescending or paternalist attitude toward his film. He may have fun with it, but he is not making fun of it.”26 So what is he doing? Why make a Western that works against simply being a Western, that exposes a kind of conflict between content and form, that upsets the “balance” that Perkins has claimed is an ideal in a film, between “what is shown and the way of showing”?27
There is no question that our expectations and interpretive assumptions are mainly shaped by the film’s surface conformity to the Western genre conventions. But not exclusively so. The wise-cracking, laconic Johnny Guitar character, unable to free himself from Vienna, and the gambling theme, invoke film noir conventions.28 The sets and costumes and choral movements of the posse suggest the conventions of a movie musical.29 But the excess, even hysterical emotional expressivism also suggests melodrama, a most unusual combination with presumably “masculinst” Westerns. There is no space here to sketch even a crude view about the genre conventions of film melodrama. I will just assume that it is safe to say that there are many types, and that besides, say, Cavell’s “melodrama of the unknown woman,”30 there is at least something like the “melodrama of the wronged, suffering, unjustly judged woman,” known or unknown, and that what such a fate (the quality of being wronged) mostly prevents (in these films, at any rate) is the realization of the possibility of love, the very state often believed to count as some sort of redemption and overcoming of such fate, a second chance or a new beginning, the American hope. The emotional register of the suffering and the hope is intense in melodramas, “boosted” by music and gesture, sometimes said to be exaggerated, even as noted, bordering on camp.31 Another way to say this is that often lovers in melodramas struggle against what appears to be the very bad hands they have been dealt by fate, a fate they can defeat if they can become and remain lovers, despite it all. In this typically melodramatic case: Can a woman once a prostitute ever be anything other than an “ex-prostitute”? Can a man who killed other men be anything more than “a killer” who now (or at least recently) no longer kills? Can each forgive the other for their pasts? Under what conditions? Only if a killer can truly become an ex-killer? A prostitute an ex-prostitute? Finally, melodramas, especially Ray’s romantic (In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground) or familial melodramas (Bigger than Life) portray characters so profoundly invested in their love, that no real relationship could ever “contain” it. There is “excess” emotional turmoil everywhere, destabilizing, undermining, enraging.
Their initial banter makes clear that this is no joyous reunion, even though Vienna has sent for him, and Johnny has come at her bidding. They both initially pretend, perhaps also to themselves, that it is a just a business relationship. But a deep hostility and so a deep emotional connection, is apparent immediately. They clearly each feel betrayed by the other,32 but the fact that they are together again in itself also indicates some hope for a new start, even though neither is willing to admit that hope to the other. In a movie where almost every other line is dripping with irony, the first unmistakable indication of the tonality Ray wants to create between the two is a line of Vienna’s. Johnny is to play something, and asks for requests. She tells him, with a clear trace of bitterness, that whatever he plays, “just put a lot of love in it.” She obviously means: “you’re so good at pretending to love, at ‘performing’ love, and then betraying, leaving.” But of course she also means, as is often the case with irony, exactly what she says: please do put a lot of love in it, return to loving me. What the music helps her recall is ultimately too intense for her to maintain her ironic stance, and she asks him to stop. (Perhaps the ultimate ironic line in the film occurs after the villain Bart [Ernest Borgnine] kills Corey [Royal Dano], brutally stabbing him in the back, and then says simply and self-righteously, “Some people just don’t listen.”) In a later conversation, Johnny reveals that he had had some hope of a reunion, but he is so clumsy and maladroit in expressing himself that he succeeds only in infuriating Vienna. He says, “A man’s gotta stop somewhere; this is as good a place as any.” A “touching” proposal, Vienna responds; and, yet again the irony: “I’m overwhelmed.”
But the heart of the (noirish) melodrama plot–ex-lovers who have been burned badly but cannot help wanting to re-ignite the flame, however dangerous–is revealed in an extraordinary late-night scene in the saloon. Johnny cannot sleep and has been drinking. Vienna clearly cannot sleep either and comes downstairs in her out-of-the-past scarlet evening dress (or negligée?) get-up. Things don’t start off well. Johnny gets right to the point that he cannot get over, asking bluntly: “How many men have you forgotten?” The obvious absurdity of the question (it’s like asking a crowd: how many people are not here? one can’t remember a number if one has forgotten the men) is some indication that there is no resolution, no reassuring answer, for the problem Johnny has. Vienna has slept with a lot of men. And she responds, “As many women as you remembered.” That is, you are no innocent and, perhaps she means, at least I have forgotten those men; they were not important. But then Johnny asks her to tell him something nice. “Lie to me” he requests and she does. He gives her lines to say and she robotically repeats them, in effect negating them, blocking their pragmatic force, by the way she says them. She says them but clearly does not mean what she says; she in effect expresses the opposite of what is said. Or at least performs this negation. At some level she probably does mean them.
“All these years I’ve waited.”
“I would have died if you hadn’t come back.”
“I still love you like you love me.”
So a theatrical display in a film full of theater, posturing, and ironic reversals; taking back with one hand what is given with the other.33 Here Vienna enacts some of the pathos of an ironic stance; she speaks only in quotations (Johnny’s), cannot be “in” the lines herself. This seems another indication that there is nothing in their attempts at mutual explanation and exculpation that will be of any use in overcoming their impasse; certainly not mere words said now. Perhaps they will all sound like someone else’s words, quotations. Johnny bolted when Vienna suggested settling down and remains “gun crazy”; she did not quietly wait for him to return, but used her talents to build a budding empire, making clear that she did not need him, could live without him. (There is no question of what she had to do to acquire the necessary capital. She tries to tell Johnny what “every board, every plank, every beam” in the place cost her in dignity and self-respect, but Johnny doesn’t want to hear.) Neither of these facts can be changed or explained away.
But in an impulsive moment, they briefly indulge the fantasy that the past and the doubts it creates can simply be willed away, willfully forgotten. Johnny asks her to imagine it is her wedding day; she breaks down and admits she has been carrying a torch for him; they embrace and the strings swell, the Johnny Guitar theme washes over them and us.
Events unfold very quickly from this point on. They are inadvertently caught up in the Kid’s bank robbery so that suspicion is cast on them and they have to escape the posse. This is when Johnny makes his proposal to pick off a few posse members and Vienna knows that he will always be “gun crazy.” They separate; she tells him that it was a mistake to have sent for him; he should stop by and pick up his pay.
The posse arrives at Vienna’s. Emma and McIvers trick Turkey into falsely implicating, betraying, Vienna. Emma shoots down the chandelier with a shotgun and Vienna’s saloon burns in a spectacular fire.
They hang Turkey.34 They are about to hang Vienna. Johnny has not abandoned Vienna, but has hidden and climbed to the top of the hanging tree and cuts Vienna loose just as Emma (who else?) whacks the horse carrying Vienna in the hanging noose. They escape through a mineshaft and make their way to the Kid’s lair, where the posse also tracks them. There is a final shootout between Vienna and Emma. Emma shoots the Kid between the eyes as he calls out Vienna’s name and is then herself shot and killed by Vienna, who is wounded. She and Johnny walk through the waterfall that hides the lair and happily embrace. This is when we finally hear the lyrics for the Johnny Guitar theme, sung in a wistful, melancholic tone by Peggy Lee.
Whether you go, whether you stay,
I love you.
What if you’re cruel, you can be kind,
There was never a man like my Johnny,
Like the one they call Johnny Guitar.
The contrast is striking. This uncertainty (“whether you go or whether you stay”) and melancholy (“you can be cruel”) stands in counterpoint to what looks like a Hollywood happy ending, the embrace. But of course, nothing has changed. Vienna’s last assessment of their relationship, that Johnny was still gun crazy and that it was a mistake to have sent for him, is no doubt still true. Vienna had said that she would not kill to protect what she has, and perhaps she has learned otherwise and so now accepts the need for a bit of gun craziness, but that is not discussed. Perhaps, with those lyrics, all one can conclude is that the status of their relationship remains highly uncertain.
Let us say that there are two senses of “not meaning what one says,” the traditional understanding of irony. There is a knowing form, and this is predominant in all the cracking wise in the film. Vienna’s “I’m overwhelmed” in reaction to Johnny’s “proposal” is typical, as are her mere recitations of the lines Johnny feeds her. There is also an unknowing form. We might say that someone ironically reveals (even, in some very complicated way, intends to reveal) the opposite of what they deliberately or consciously intend to reveal by what they say.35
Emma says that the Kid is always eyeing her, but that is not what she “really means.” Unbeknownst to her, unconsciously or in self-deceit, she really means she is always eyeing him, lusts after him. (What she really means to say when she says to Vienna, “That’s big talk for a little gun” is anyone’s guess.) The townsfolk say that their motives in attacking Vienna are moral considerations, but what they really mean to do is, unknowingly but effectively, strike out against the new world of money, speculation and social mobility that she represents; or, they partly mean to protect themselves from their own desires, which Vienna excites; or, simply they want the property Vienna has cleverly secured, they are acting out of envy. As we have seen, sometimes a single statement can embody both forms, as when Vienna says, “Put a little love in it,” knowingly not meaning that, meaning to say he has no love to give, and yet unknowingly meaning the request literally. (Admittedly, the “unknowing” side of this is extremely controversial in philosophy. There are many who will say that they cannot understand what the claim even means. In this limited context, I can only suggest that we would be restricting our interpretive capacity in an extreme way if we must believe either that Emma means exactly what she says, or that she knows perfectly well what she really means, but is simply a hypocrite.) In the melodrama plot this is all intensified by what is clearly a great reservoir of hate and resentment motivating what the two principals say, even as feelings of love and aspirations for reunion also motivate what they say and do, a kind of psychological complexity that is something of a trademark for Ray’s films. This can all make even a single small phrase unusually complicated. When Johnny and Vienna are arguing and Johnny returns to his absurd “why didn’t you wait for me?” theme and notes that between the time they separated and now, there must have been other men, Vienna coyly smiles, almost coquettishly, and says, “enough.” What did she mean to communicate by saying that in that way? That she was proud of the fact? Inadvertently revealing that she enjoys having many lovers? Is she boasting that there were enough (scores, hundreds) to pay for her saloon? Is she simply defiant in the face of his accusations? Unconcerned about his reaction? All of the above?
At any rate, this is often the situation–unknowingness, misunderstanding, missed signals, honest expression but in a state of self-deceit–that is typical of intense melodramas.36 What I want to conclude by noting is that it is all not typical of conventional Westerns, and that this helps explain why the Western framework in such a situation cannot “mean what it says,” why the expectations and meaning intended by narrating within such a frame cannot but point instead to those expectations and to that framework, rather than that the frame just creates the expectations or orders the plot.
There are of course Westerns with love stories at their center. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concerns a love triangle. There is also a triangle in High Noon and Shane and even in another very fine “quasi-Western,” I suppose we have to say, also directed by Ray, The Lusty Men (1952). But the meaning of the love stories within the Westerns is intertwined with the mythic elements of the plot and are bereft of either sort of irony. When Hattie chooses the educated Ranse over the small rancher Tom in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there is no emotionally charged or as we say “melodramatic” scene (in fact the choice happens offstage), and there is no suggestion of complicated mixed motives or self-deceit. She probably, much later, considered it a mistake, or at least has some regrets, but she knew she was also choosing a way of life–simple literacy for one thing–but also culture, travel, sophisticated politics, and our appreciation of what that sacrifice of Tom cost her could not be as keen as it is if the emotional undercurrents were as complicated as they are in Johnny Guitar.
It would be far too simple to say by contrast that in these epic Westerns people say what they mean and mean what they say, but it is true that there is usually not this melodramatic potential for misunderstanding, and the general drift of such a characterization would not be wrong. And in that context, the context of myth at both a universal and historical level, this is not a limitation. The elemental psychological issues raised–love of one’s own, fear of death, pride, vengeance–are profoundly important and quite complicated. But it is another sort of complication that confronts the Western’s characters, having mostly to do with the taming, education, direction of the political passions, and not with, let us say, first of all, interpretation, the problem of meaning. When the latter becomes central, the Western framework cannot contain them and the framework looks ironic.
This means that there is a large issue to discuss here, too large for this context. Put it this way: The Western at its best is a classical narrative framework, in league with the epic, and often with the tragic (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Gunfighter, Shane). In melodrama, neither the inevitable “objective” conflicts in what social roles require, nor the subjective crises stemming from having to determine what to do (the sources of ancient and modern tragedy), propels the action. And it is because no great principles are at stake, are credible (given, perhaps, what we “now” believe about psychological motivation), that love and being loved assume the role of such principles of significance, a role they cannot bear, producing the hysteria and excess of melodrama.
This is partly why, when, in Johnny Guitar, someone voices what would be, in a typical Western, a typical motivation relevant to the epic context, we notice the framework, our attention is directed to the narrative pattern rather than carried along by the narration, because we have seen enough to know that it “can’t be that simple.” As noted, a paradigmatic instance of this is when Emma invoked finally the “cattlemen-farmer” archetypal conflict as a reason for her hostility to Vienna and all that she represents.
It is as if Ray had set down, perhaps as a kind of experiment, inside a classic Western setting, the much later historical world of Sirk, or even the world of Dix and Laurel from In a Lonely Place (1950), and then let us watch the grating, anomalous implications roll out.37 (Ray does just about everything he can to say: this may be a Western movie but these are not Western characters. For example, Corey, one of the Kid’s band, is several times shown reading a book; not a common occupation in Westerns.) Somebody in some Western might be able to say, “All a man needs is just a smoke and a cup of coffee,” but among these ironists, the quotation marks are almost visible.38 The seriousness and the sheer “adultness,” one might say, of Vienna’s defense of herself to Johnny (and her withering destruction, in her “if a woman just slips once” speech, of the male double-standard on which many Western “virtues” were built) and the sophistication of her analysis of where they are fit uneasily into the archetypal purposes of the classical Western, and so make that uneasiness visible and the Western frame more cited than used, seem like a narrative structure and set of problems no longer relevant to subjects of this level of self-consciousness. And even more strikingly the characters seem to know this; this seems to be the meaning of their air of wise-guy knowingness, at least on the part of Vienna, the Kid and Johnny, none of whom ever met a wisecrack they didn’t like. One can quite plausibly imagine Vienna simply saying, “Oh for God’s sake, Emma. Stop with all this public morals, collusion with the Kid in crime, hooray for bourgeois domesticity, the railroad will destroy our traditional way of life crap. You want to kill me because the Kid prefers me to you and you hate yourself for desiring him.” (She actually does say something close to this.) Or, more imaginatively, one can picture the Kid saying to his colleagues, “Well, we look and talk like an outlaw band; you’ve all seen Westerns. We must be an outlaw band. Let’s finally act like it.”
A dominant “knowing irony” can suggest the kind of uncertainty, or reluctance to take any side in some important dispute, which is inconsistent with the high seriousness and mythic ambition of great Westerns. In the crisis situations portrayed in Westerns, indulge such an irony and you begin to sound like a Lee Marvin character, a cynic. The great problem in great Westerns is the possibility of and the nature of and especially the cost of civilized life itself. Such a film cannot do everything and so cannot portray as well the problems that arise at a much more intimate and self-consciousness level, a level not tied to the basic problem of safety from decline into the state of nature. Those problems include the “unknowing irony” that make stable romantic relations so highly individualized and thus ungeneralizable and the socio-political issues much harder to manage. The relationship between Johnny and Vienna doesn’t mean anything of some mythic importance in the way the relation between Hattie and Ranse in Liberty Valance does, or between Marshal Kane and his wife, Amy, in High Noon, or between Shane and Marian in Shane, or between Dan Evans and Emmy in Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma (1957) or between Ben Stride and Annie in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now (1956).
If this is so then it means that the melodramatic and romantic world of a Nicholas Ray film serves rather as a counterpoint to the assumptions and ends of a traditional Western, not an instance of them, even though it is formally presented that way. It is in this sense that a Western, as treated by Ray, cannot mean what it says, must become, as a mere form, visible and so mannered or perhaps “baroque,” a form that cannot contain the melodrama “within” it.39
But if this is the right way to begin to understand the ironic dialogue, the studied self-consciousness of the Kid and Johnny and Vienna, the melodramatically exaggerated sets, costumes, and music, the occasional flirtation with self-parody, the inversions of character types, the intense hate-love nature of the central love story, and the appeal to psychological motivation like repressed sexuality,40 then it all obviously returns us to the most important and difficult question posed in the first section above. Why would Nicholas Ray make a Western that cannot be what it is without a great deal of irony, given what he asks it to contain? Why bring that issue, the lack of fit between form and content, so much to the foreground?
Whatever answer there is to this question, it is present in the film only by implication, and drawing out such implications is difficult. We can though, notice what is not present, what is conspicuously absent, in Johnny Guitar. The great epic Westerns all have some ethical and often a straightforwardly political dimension. The central question usually concerns some dimension of the problem of justice, whether as a question about the relation between justice and vengeance, or the legitimacy of some act of violence, about the relation between violence and the rule of law, or about the conquest and near-extermination of native peoples, or about the injustice of some form of historical memory, or about the psychological costs of the founding of a civil order in a context where it was absent. As we have been noting, by and large this sort of framework of meaning is absent or present only ironically in Johnny Guitar. I have said that the love affair between Johnny and Vienna doesn’t mean anything epic or mythic, carries no larger significance. But one could also say that the central events in the other plot, the attacks on Vienna by Emma, McIvers and the townsfolk, do not draw our attention to any social or political issue larger than anxiety about social change. (The exception is to the clear reference to the McCarthy witch hunts and so to forced confessions, self-serving, erroneous accusations, and mob behavior. But even that already suggests a context of corrupt or failed politics; that is, a hypocritical, posed politics, behind which there is only self-aggrandizement, self-interest and venality. McCarthy’s and Nixon’s speeches were both phony, and unknowingly, ironically self-revealing. The framework of national security politics contained the reality of hysteria and power-lust.)
Moreover, there is nothing unusual in Westerns about the portrayal of “ordinary citizens” as easily cowed, acting like a mob. High Noon comes to mind immediately. But that crowd expressed its timidity by inaction; this one by becoming a lynch mob. What, though, is the great issue animating their intense hatred of Vienna? That she is in league with the Dancing Kid and his group? This just on the basis of the fact that they drink at her place on Fridays? That she is not respectable? For that matter, what is McIvers’s motivation? Before he becomes part of the group accusing Vienna of complicity with the stagecoach robbery, he seems to have already formed some resolve to join with Emma and get rid of Vienna. (McIvers and Emma are said to be the two largest land owners in town and to have the most cattle.) The only possible explanation is the one Vienna gives: that he cannot stand for her to make such a profit and so eventually enjoy such influence in the post-railroad town.41 But that is venal, petty; that is, private (which doesn’t, of course, mean it isn’t true), and when joined with Emma’s bizarre sexual and violent fantasies, and the fact that there is no character in the film who defends any principle higher or more complicated than individual entitlement, one could venture the guess that the nearly explicit inappropriateness of the Western’s frame appears motivated by a general skepticism about that political dimension of human life in general, a skepticism that is in this film most often expressed by irony. If this is so, one might venture far out onto a thin limb, and suggest that this skepticism touches on the problematic link between the political psychology required by capitalism and that required by liberal democracy. The latter requires some commitment to a common good; some allegiance to the community that is more than merely strategic. The questions about justice noted above as typical of classical Westerns are not in play if we restrict the basic question of the political bond to “You can get yours if I can get mine.” Yet the “political” rhetoric of “the town,” of Emma and McIver, is mere appearance; the motivational reality is darker or transparently self-serving. The former, a speculative market economy, requires competitive individualism, often a ruthless form that sets everyone off against the other and foments paranoia, justifiably so in Vienna’s case. I don’t mean that Ray’s film means to raise this issue as a question, but rather that the “Western’s” ironic status in the film is an indication that he thinks the issue is settled. Vienna’s shrewdness is the future; the ostensibly countering political rhetoric is phony, an excuse for the prosecution of private interests. Thus Johnny’s extraordinarily unusual (for a Western) cynicism and cold indifference to the conflicts around him. To him, Vienna is a mercenary who will do anything for status and money (though he still loves her, after his fashion); the townsfolk are hypocrites, and the Dancing Kid’s gang are children, or the Western equivalent of unserious fraternity boys.
What we have instead is typical of Ray’s much more psychologically than politically complex films; that is, we have a great investiture of importance in love and being loved as the central human problem,42 or, we should probably say, we have what has become the central and most difficult human problem, since the Western is now noticeably of historical rather than thematic significance. This is so even though Ray was certainly aware, as few directors ever were or are, of the nearly certain impossibility of such redemption. And yet this does not mean that the film should be characterized as another of the more “psychological” Westerns, such as those by Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. It is fair to say that those Westerns explore more self-consciously the psychological costs of the frontier-town transition or the legal-extra-legal violence problem, than the “objective” problem itself. But the Western framework itself is secure, just given a different, more-psychological-than-epic inflection. A question like, “What really is the difference between a sheriff and a bounty hunter, if any?” might be explored by asking “What does it mean for this individual (the Jimmy Stewart character in Mann’s Westerns) to face that challenge?” But it is still the classical question at issue. We are still within the generic language and concerns of the Western.
There is one more element that connects the love story melodrama with the “Western” plot. Put simply, both raise the question of the possibility of “new beginnings,” sort of escape from, or reconciliation with, the past. As in many epic Westerns, the question is whether a “second founding” for the country, after the hatred and brutality of the Civil War, is possible; in this as in other films, whether the re-founding of a modern commercial republic is possible in the shadow of that hatred and brutality, in a context of virtual lawlessness. The Vienna-Johnny relationship poses at a personal and psychological level a similar sort of question about a new beginning, shadowed by the bitterness of their break-up. Vienna has “become” an entrepreneur and insists on being so treated, and for all of Johnny’s persistent “gun craziness,” he has, after all, changed his name, trying for a new identity, his guns are in his saddlebags, and he carries a guitar instead. The surface image at the end–the purification by water, or the waters of forgetfulness–suggests that they have succeeded. But, one final time, we cannot escape the irony of the embrace. Vienna had thought once before that Johnny was over his “gun craziness” and had been disappointed, likely will be again, perhaps the same sort of disappointment the “gun crazy” country seems to experience regularly in trying to hold together its fragile union.