Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Two: Johnny Guitar & Straight Shooting
Long have I heard this film revered by everyone from friends of mine to Martin Scorsese. I can understand the affection. It is certainly unforgettable and definitely tries something new in the Western genre but I don’t love the film like they do. Though, I am certainly glad I watched it.
This Western feels more like fantasy film, not one with monsters and flying things but “fantasy” in the sense that it doesn’t seem to take place in the real world. None of the characters feel real for most of its runtime and the world they inhabit is an imaginary play world (a very dark one at times). The story and its occupants would be better treated in an opera.
What I like most are the visuals that come from this lack of realism: Joan’s white dress at the black piano against the red clay, her bright yellow top against the fake scenic backdrop in the finale, the posse all clad in black and white from their funeral attire. These are often powerful but the film doesn’t carry any power beneath these devices, at least not for me on this first watch.
I may have to look at it again years from now. We’ll see.
Seen on Amazon Prime.
For the record, I watched this film on YouTube. That version is in very bad shape and I don’t know if the DVD copies available are any better. Also, it does not have a musical score so I played my Western soundtrack playlist on Spotify while watching it.
I was amazed at this early effort from Ford (credited as Jack here). The stark, effective simplicity of his work is already at play. Many of other elements of his art are also in stages of development: the way he holds back on close-ups (this time reserving them almost exclusively for his star), the important of objects to signify the loss of friends (the girl holding the plate, Harry holding his horse’s tail after he must kill his buddy).
The action, which doesn’t really get going until the last twenty minutes, just explodes on screen. I can’t imagine what it was like to see this in 1917 in a theater. Notice how the shots go from being relatively long to only a few seconds each. The cutting is rapid and exhilarating.
I just wish he’d let Harry go away alone at the end but that might have been out of Ford’s control. Either way, this is a fantastic silent Western.
Seen on YouTube.
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