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Movie: Johnny Guitar Essay

1950 words - 8 pages

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) presents its most prominent setting, Vienna’s saloon, in a very uncomfortable manner. It represents a landmark doomed by a self-righteous group of settlers (Emma Small and her posse) plot-wise, but by mise-en-scene and cinematographic choices, the quiet saloon also emanates an ominous aura and consistently tries to detach the audience from the locale despite many of the characters, and specifically the protagonist hoping for its salvation. This presents an interesting dichotomy to the vast, orchestra-accompanied wilderness that surrounds the saloon. From the cold, dead stares of the lifeless bartender in the background of many shots, to the absences of close-ups and non-diegetic instrumentals within the first thirty minutes of the film, the saloon, despite its relevance and value to characters such as Vienna and Johnny Guitar, becomes a creepy and unsettling stage for many events of the story; making it difficult for the audience to empathize with it’s inevitable downfall.

The film begins with a title card sequence upon a static backdrop of shrubbery, mountains and distant clouds; a lingering sight that doesn’t truthfully establish forthcoming events in Vienna’s saloon. Her saloon may be quiet, but it is always occupied, and whilst the opening sequence, in which we are introduced to Johnny Guitar, is filled with a bravado of horns and orchestral accompaniment, the saloon itself is inversely populated by the sound of wind, tumbleweed, and stark silences - something perhaps more associated with the western expanse in which the story takes place. Yet for this dichotomy in sound, the initial visuals after the credit sequence foreshadow the destruction of locale, and the audience takes the place of Johnny Guitar on horseback; a mere observer. We are led to believe the wild west is dangerous from this perspective - full of explosions, gangs, and even a stagecoach robbery. Vienna’s saloon initially seems likes a place of safety, a refuge for Johnny from the awful desert winds - but we soon find out it is anything but. That is one of the underlying aspects of every location presented in Johnny Guitar - whether it be the western expanse, a saloon, bank, or cabin - every location sooner or later reveals itself as unsafe; guns ablaze and conflictions galore.

The film structure puts the viewer in dangerous and helpless scenarios like this, such as the burning of Vienna’s saloon, where Emma’s intent of destruction is finally realized. Conflicts and destruction in Johnny Guitar are rarely interrupted or reconsidered, such as Johnny’s rumble with Bart, the bank robbery by Dancin’ Kid and his posse, and the burning of Vienna’s saloon; if characters do try to intervene, they are often left on the backburner and the initial intents of destruction or confliction are carried out as planned, just as they would be if nobody was there at all. The exception to this is only first apparent in the film’s climax - where the...

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