‘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.’ With lines like these, Nicholas Ray’s 1954 classic Wild West gender-bender sets out its stall. The title is slightly misleading – Sterling Hayden’s finger-picking interloper Johnny might get top billing, but the star of the show in every conceivable sense is Joan Crawford. She is Vienna, a gun-toting, trouser-wearing casino boss whose loose-living ways infuriate the local league of moral decency.
Vienna is a woman trapped between two equally unpredictable forces: the aforementioned townsfolk, whipped into a fury by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a sexually frustrated, self-hating tomboy; and a gang of layabout toughs under the command of wannabe outlaw Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Thanks to Crawford’s cutting but compassionate performance, ‘Johnny Guitar’ is unashamedly feminist. But Ray’s gleeful subversion of conservative western traditions doesn’t end there. This is a movie for all the outsiders, for anyone who’s ever been judged on their appearance, their outlook or the way they choose to live. That it’s also a rip-snorting yarn packed with shootouts, punch-ups, daring escapes and crackling dialogue simply confirms its masterpiece status.