Johnny Guitar (Olive Signature) Blu-ray Review: A Captivating Story Populated with Complex Characters

The new Olive Signature line of releases includes Nicholas Ray’s compelling Johnny Guitar, mastered on Blu-ray from a new 4K restoration. In addition to be a thrilling adventure, the film is the rare Western where strong, interesting female characters are the leads of the story while the men take a backseat.

Passing explosive excavations by a train company and witnessing from a distance the end of a stagecoach robbery, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) rides into an Arizona town as a dust storm blows. Those scenes foreshadow the volatile, chaotic events to come. Johnny goes to Vienna’s, a saloon named after its proprietor (Joan Crawford), where he claims to have an appointment about a job, but she isn’t eager to meet with him.

Vienna is a smart, resourceful woman. After obtaining information from a railroad surveyor whom she “exchanged confidences” with, she bought the saloon knowing where the train would be located and plans for a depot to be built. Some of the townsfolk don’t like her or the railroad because of what it will mean for their small town. Prodding others against Vienna is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), whose brother was killed at the aforementioned robbery. His body is brought to Vienna’s with the assumption that her pal, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), and his gang were responsible, although there’s no proof. Further accusations go back and forth between the women calling into question what is really going on. Although the town has a marshal, McIvers (Ward Bond) is in charge and gives them all 24 hours to leave.

The gang are no angels, and to fund their escape, they rob the local bank. Unfortunately for Vienna, she was there on business, emptying her account because she no longer wanted to deal with Emma, the bank’s treasurer. She unsuccessfully tried to stop them, but the Kid doesn’t care since he can’t have what he wants. Emma is convinced there was no coincidence. A posse heads out after the gang, but Emma steers them towards Vienna, and the pursuit of justice gets perverted.

The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Shot in Trucolor and mastered from a new 4K restoration, the picture is impressive. Colors are vibrant hues that pop off the screen, like the greens in the saloon, and the blacks are inky. Fine details can be seen in the sharp images, although the focus in solo shots of Crawford are intentionally soft. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 delivers clear dialogue, a robust score, and mostly authentic effects except for the echo added to voices outside the Kid’s hideout.

The extras start with an “Introduction by Martin Scorsese” (1080i, 3 min). The audio commentary is by historian and critic Geoff Andrew, who talks about the production with juicy behind-the-scenes details, such as how Crawford threatened to walk unless the story focused more on her character, and the themes of the film. “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (HD, 17 min) is a critical appreciation of Nicholas Ray with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich.

“Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?” (HD, 15 min) features the same critics. “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar” (HD, 10 min) features historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein. Archivist Marc Wanamaker discusses “Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures” (HD, 6 min). “My Friend, the American Friend” (HD, 11 min) is a Nicholas Ray biographical piece with Tom Farrell. “Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western” is an original essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 min) reveals how improved the picture is.

Based upon a novel by Roy Chanslor and a screenplay by blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow, Johnny Guitar succeeds because of its captivating story populated with complex characters rather than the usual “good guys versus bad guys” scenario. Relationships are further clarified as the story progresses, and explain the believable motivations for the characters’ actions. Thankfully, Crawford used her clout to force the producers to increase the size of her part, making the feel fresh and unique in its genre. Olive’s Signature Blu-ray delivers impressive video, satisfying audio, and a slew of informative extras that will its audience.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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