As was occasionally true, this Nicholas Ray movie is famous as much for its backstage drama as for what we see on the screen. Sterling Hayden hated working with Joan Crawford. Crawford hated working with Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray said, "Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning."
The movie itself invites multiple interpretations. As the venerable TV Guide wrote, "Johnny Guitar has been called everything from a feminist statement to a gay camp-classic to an anti-McCarthyism allegory." I'm not entirely convinced about the film's feminism ... at the least, I'd argue it's unintended. The film centers more on gender identities, with the men sliding into the background in the face of the indomitable Vienna (Crawford) and the frightening Emma (McCambridge). I've never felt qualified to identify what makes something camp, although I admit I laugh a lot when watching Johnny Guitar (and again, I don't know if those scenes are meant to make us laugh). The McCarthyism angle is clearer. The script was co-written by a blacklisted author, Ben Maddow, and there is one scene, where the mob badgers and threatens a man to give up his friends that is terrifying in that early-50s way.
Crawford's fears were right in one respect: McCambridge blows her and everyone else off the screen. Another piece of trivia from the IMDB:
[T]he crew broke into spontaneous applause after one of Mercedes McCambridge's powerhouse scenes, which infuriated star Joan Crawford. According to Nicholas Ray, he then began shooting the younger actress' scenes in the early morning before Crawford got there. After the star witnessed one of these early shoots she flew into a rage, broke into McCambridge's dressing room and slashed her clothes to shreds.
Since Johnny Guitar is ripe for so many possibilities, it is endlessly watchable. For my money, though, the one thing that lifts it above other films is Mercedes McCambridge. Her love/hate feelings towards The Dancing Kid and, more importantly, towards Vienna, drive an intensity that Crawford admittedly matches. They make a fine team, no matter how much they might have hated each other.
It's all rather loony. If I don't take it as seriously as some, I certainly appreciate the ways it might work on others. #240 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.