Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Off the Shelf: Johnny Guitar / High Noon (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
Two classic westerns are the first in the new Olive Signature Blu-ray line.

The American western was undergoing a transition in the 1950s. In many ways, it was never bigger. Many western filmmakers were working at the height of their powers. New technical developments like Cinemascope ant Technicolor made the movies bigger and bolder than they ever had before. The rising popularity of television brought westerns into households every week, as the genre was a staple of the medium in its early days. At the same time, the genre was facing a real shift, growing more overtly political over time and eventually giving way to the revisionism of the westerns of the 1960s. Two of the great '50s westerns, 1952's High Noon and 1954's Johnny Guitar, are right at the middle of this transitionary point: traditional in form but not in content.

Johnny Guitar, directed by the great Nicholas Ray, tells the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), the owner of a saloon who faces adversity from the townsfolk for the men she fraternizes with and the fact that she supports the building of a nearby railroad. When a drifter/ex-lover, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), re-enters the picture, everything comes to a head.
Not only is Johnny Guitar completely gorgeous (shot it Trucolor, a process used in a number of Republic pictures of the period), but also fascinating in the way that it more or less comes down to a dispute between two women -- practically unheard of in the genre at the time (and even now, as westerns are still primarily devoted to stories of men). One featurette on this new Blu-ray explores the idea that it's actually the first feminist western, for which a case could definitely be made. While there are plenty of stories about Joan Crawford being difficult on sets and/or when it comes to how clothes are hung, but the wildness of her eyes and the bigness of the emotions she tends to play are to the benefit of Johnny Guitar; Vienna isn't just a character, but a larger-than-life figure who towers both over the town and over the film, giving Johnny Guitar a spark at its center that spreads outward to the rest of the picture. It's the kind of movie Nicholas Ray made so often, about people who run hot but cannot necessarily fit into society as themselves. He's like an early incarnation of Ang Lee that way.
But where Johnny Guitar burns with color and overheated passions, Fred Zinnemann's 1952 classic High Noon is all muted emotions, grim faces and stark black and white -- both the color palette used in the film's photography and in the movie's moral outlook. There is right and there is wrong in High Noon; good guys and bad guys. It is the film I most often reference as being a "square" western -- that is, the kind of traditionalist western that the Italian spaghetti westerns of the '60s and '70s were reacting against with their violence, their outrageous tones and their celebration of antiheroes. High Noon only drinks milk and goes to bed by 9.

Weird that it does feel square, though, seeing as it's so politically charged with what were even for the time more "liberal" ideas about what was happening in America at the time with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting taking place in Hollywood. Screenwriter Carl Foreman wrote High Noon as a metaphor for what he saw as a town -- hell, a whole country -- that had become cowed by fear and unwilling to get behind those who were under attack and being branded as Communists. That he concealed these messages within a western -- to that point one of the more conservative and "American" genres -- makes High Noon a masterpiece of subversion despite all of its squareness. When John Wayne calls your movie "the most un-American thing" he's seen in his whole life, you know you're doing something right.
Make no mistake: High Noon may be square, but it's still a great film. Revisiting it on the new Olive Signature series Blu-ray (remastered in 4K!), I was struck at what a vertical western it is -- that is to say that we tend to think of westerns as a primarily horizontal genre, concerned with sprawling widescreen landscapes that present the scenery as expansive but flat. High Noon's compositions, on the other hand, run top to bottom, whether it's the the way Zinnemann frames his actors (it helps that the movie is shot in the 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, which limits the space on the sides of the frame but allows for more to fit in at the top and bottom) or the famous clock tower that reaches up towards the sky, a constant real-time reminder of the impending showdown Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) will face when bad guy Frank Miller finally arrives in town by train.

While Olive has been putting out nice transfers of smaller or lesser-known titles for several years, the majority of them have been more or less no-frills affairs. The first two releases in their nascent Signature Series, on the other hand, seems inspired by the work being done by the Criterion Collection in terms of its technical merits and the amount of bonus content included. There are a number of featurettes included on both releases that not only give back story on the productions but also provide context for both and their relationship to the Hollywood blacklist. If you're a western fan or just want to built out your collection of classic films on Blu-ray, both of these titles are well-worth picking up.

Johnny Guitar Blu-ray release date: September 20, 2016
110 minutes/1954/Not Rated
1.66:1 (1080p)
DTS-HD Mono Master Audio (English)
English Subtitles

Johnny Guitar Special Features:
Martin Scorsese introduction
Commentary with critic Geoff Andrew
"Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other" featurette
"Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?" featurette
"Tell Us She Was One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar" featurette
"Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures" featurette
"My Friend, the American Friend: Memoirs of Nicholas Ray" featurette
"Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western" featurette
Theatrical Trailer

High Noon Blu-ray release date: September 20, 2016
85 minutes/1952/Not Rated
1.37:1 (1080p)
DTS HD Mono Master Audio (English)
English Subtitles

High Noon Bonus Features:
"A Ticking Clock" Editing Featurette
"A Stanley Kramer Production" Featurette
"Imitation of Life: The Hollywood Blacklist and High Noon" Featurette
"Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon" Visual Essay
"Uncitizened Kane" Essay by Sight & Sound Editor Nick James
Theatrical Trailer

Buy Johnny Guitar from Olive Films here and High Noon from Olive Films here


  1. I picked up this High Noon Blu Ray and what a treat. I had forgotten about that Wayne quote, and I have to disagree as well. Isn't this one of the MOST AMERICAN movies? I hadn't seen it in decades and between the tight editing, the performances (especially Cooper.. wow), and the pulsing, driving score I loved every second of it. Now I need to check out Johnny Guitar...

  2. I'm very happy with both of these releases and I really appreciate the prestige Olive has given these films. I agree with the apparent inspiration from Criterion, and I'm looking forward to whatever comes next in the "Olive Signature" line.

  3. I'm very happy with both of these releases and I really appreciate the prestige Olive has given these films. I agree with the apparent inspiration from Criterion, and I'm looking forward to whatever comes next in the "Olive Signature" line.

  4. How you summarized High Noon without saying "Hero withstands verbal abuse", I will never understand. It is the first thing I think of whenever I hear it's name.