Johnny Guitar – Olive Signature Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Johnny GuitarA bizarrely veiled allegory for the McCarthy-era Red Scare, Johnny Guitar was misunderstood upon its initial release.  With the leads at their operatic best, the table is now set for an epic showdown in this one-of-a-kind western from director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause).  One of the most original takes on the western genre—the women are far tougher than the men—Johnny Guitar is praised by fans, filmmakers, and critics alike as groundbreaking. Boasting superb supporting performances, Johnny Guitar features Joan Crawford (Best Actress, Midred Pierce), Mercedes McCambridge (Best Actress, All The King’s Men), Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Scott Brady (The China Syndrome), Ward Bond (The Searchers), Paul Fix (To Kill a Mockingbird), Royal Dano (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and John Carradine (Stagecoach). Notably, Johnny Guitar’s indelible title song was a collaboration between the Academy Award-winning composer Victor Young (Around the World in Eighty Days), and co-writer and songstress Peggy Lee.

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Vienna is a saloon owner with a sordid past. Persecuted by the townspeople, Vienna must protect her life and property when a lynch mob led by her sexually repressed rival, Emma Small, attempts to frame her for a string of robberies she did not commit. Enter Johnny Guitar, a guitar-strumming ex-gunfighter, who once was—and perhaps still is—in love with Vienna.

Johnny Guitar was a film most didn’t know how to deal with upon its release.  Things were a bit general with cinema going back in the 1950s.  You went to see a Western expecting a stereotypical cowboy affair.  Holding court for a drama within the confines of the genre was not something people were expecting, appreciative of or even respectful for.  Hence, the weird response to it upon release in the United States and the very warm reception it had over in France during the era of the New Wave cinema.

For its time and in the history of all things cinema, its very much considered to be a feminist film.  An early entry and one of the first (and scarce) Westerns to promote that.  Yes, the film only has 2 female characters in the entire thing, but still, the work done with both, from different angles promotes the film as such.  There are layers, depth and the fact that both of them’s conflicts and dealings with one another do not revolve completely around the men or any men in the story.

Joan Crawford just commands a screen the seconds she walks onto frame, especially in Johnny Guitar.  She rules this film, no doubts about it.  She’s powerful, but also one who keeps secrets from different sects, even hiding stuff close to the vest.  Its all fully realized in a completely 3 dimensional character here in Johnny Guitar.  Matching wits with her is Sterling Hayden, an actor I’m pretty fond of.  This is early Hayden, pre-Kubrick, and he’s solid, but more of that pretty face speaking lines (Which he fully admits he was back in these days) than the powerful actor he’d grow to become.

Making this different from its contemporaries is the lack of it being a static film.  There is some solid cinematography here, but the lighting, costuming, angles and essence of the film is very moody and bit darker than that of the normal Saturday matinee fare it was released against.  Its not a film that’s afraid to go against the grain, going deep, focusing on the slower dramatics rather than the quickness of the draw.  Its a film that has been re-assessed over the years and maybe can find a new audience with this spectacular looking Blu-ray that has it as it was intended to be viewed.  Yeah, the film has kinda dumb name, that doesn’t even nearly evoke the feeling of watching it, but get beyond that and you’ll find a surprisingly great Western you’ve probably never been pointed toward before.

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Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Clarity/Detail: Johnny Guitar has received a brand new 4K restoration from the folks over at Olive Films. And my does it look pretty.  Grain is kept intact and it helps to preserve what is likely the closest to the original cinematic look of the film.  The film has a nice bolder look and good saturation in its color mix.  Detail is pretty good.  The image is naturally on the softer side because they’ve kept the grain structure good, which allows for the detail to be retained.

Depth:  Movements on the image are smooth and cinematic in nature.  Spacing of foreground and background is done with good clarity and 3 dimensions.  “Vienna’s” features a good look for the depth of the film and a lot of it takes place there.

Black Levels:  Blacks are deep and help accentuate the image.  Some minor detail can be lost in darkness and on clothing.  However, the shading and details it does add are quite lovely in enhancements and appearances.

Color Reproduction:  Colors are pretty wealthy when going for the more striking ones.  Yellows and reds stand out the most.  More natural ones like browns and such find a rustic and solid appearance.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are natural and maintain their look throughout the film (The only time they might not would be a fade into another scene).  Facial details are solid from a medium shot to very good in close ups.  You can make out stubble, make-up, wrinkles, dirt and dried blood among other things.

Noise/Artifacts:  A healthy layer of grain and no other really blemishes keep for a good clean print of the film.

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Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Johnny Guitar sounds very good in its lossless mono mix.  Dialogue has a crispness and clarity while maintaining some of that analog charm.  Sound effects like gunfire and TNT exploding sound good, deep and full.  The music, both live and in the score also sound layered and hanging in to get every little piece of a note.  This track should please those who pick this up.

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction:  Dialogue is loud, clean and clear.

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Johnny Guitar – Olive Signature Edition comes with a booklet featuring an essay by critic Johnathan Rosenbaum.

Audio Commentary

  • With Critic Geoff Andrew

Introduction By Martin Scorsese (HD, 3:28) – Appears to be from maybe a VHS release of the film.  One of the greatest directors of all time introduces the film with historical facts and observations on what makes the film such an iconic piece of film history.

Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other (HD, 17:29) – Critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B Ruby Rich discuss more in detail what Scorsese touches upon in the intro.

Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western? (HD, 14:33) – Critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney and B. Ruby Rich (aka the same talking heads from the last featurette) analyze the feminist aspects of the film and how it was unknowingly progressive for cinema at the time.

Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar (HD, 10:23) – With historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein talking about how the writer of Johnny Guitar was a victim of the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist.  This is similar to the featurette on the High Noon – Olive Signature Edition (releasing the same day).

Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures (HD, 6:01) – With archivist Marc Wanamaker talking about the producer and how Republic Pictures came to be and their style of releasing genre a b-westerns.

My Friend, the American Friend (HD, 11:07) – Memories of Nicholas Ray with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich.  They discuss their experiences working with him, and describe to the type of director and person he was.

Johhny Guitar: The First Existential Wester (HD, 10:02) – Essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The same as featured in the booklet.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:50)

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I had not seen Johnny Guitar before this review.  Color me shocked, as this title sorta leads you to think its some remotely different kind of honky tonk than it actually is.  This film is pretty deep, meaty and the sort of different, inspiring and artistic western you want in the pack of so many also-rans from the hey day.  Olive Films again delivers on outstanding video and audio with their Signature Edition series.  And again, these extras are quite educational, interesting and complimentary of the film itself.  This, along with High Noon, has set the bar high and built excitement for upcoming Olive Signature Edition releases.



Brandon is the host, producer, writer and editor of The Brandon Peters Show (thebrandonpetersshow.com) on the Creative Zombie Studios Network. At Why So Blu he is a Writer/Reviewer. Brandon is a lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash. You can also find older essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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