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.
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.
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
DTS-HD Mono Master Audio (English)
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
High Noon Blu-ray release date: September 20, 2016
85 minutes/1952/Not Rated
DTS HD Mono Master Audio (English)
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
Buy Johnny Guitar from Olive Films here and High Noon from Olive Films here