The screenplay was adapted from a novel by Roy Chanslor. Though credited to Philip Yordan, he was merely a front for the actual screenwriter, blacklistee Ben Maddow. Filmed in Republic's Trucolor process, the film was directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by Herbert J. Yates.
On the outskirts of a wind-swept Arizona cattle town, an aggressive and strong-willed saloonkeeper named Vienna maintains a volatile relationship with the local cattlemen and townsfolk. Not only does she support the railroad being laid nearby (the cattlemen oppose it), but she permits "The Dancin' Kid" (her former amour) and his confederates to frequent her saloon. The locals, led by John McIvers but egged on by Emma Small, a onetime rival of Vienna, are determined to force Vienna out of town, and the hold-up of the stage (they suspect, erroneously, by "The Dancin' Kid") offers a perfect pretext. Vienna faces them down, helped by the mysterious and just arrived Johnny Guitar. McIvers gives Vienna, Johnny Guitar, and "The Dancin Kid" and his sidekicks 24 hours to leave. Johnny turns out to be Vienna's ex-lover and a reformed gunslinger whose real name is Johnny Logan. A smouldering love/hate relationship develops.
The Dancin' Kid and his gang rob the town bank to fund their escape to California, but the pass is blocked by a railroad crew dynamiting a way in, and they flee back to their secret hideout behind a waterfall. Emma Small convinces the townsfolk that Vienna is as guilty as the rest and the posse rides to her saloon. Vienna appears to be getting the best of another verbal confrontation when one of the wounded bank robbers, Turkey, is discovered under a table. Emma persuades the men to hang Vienna and Turkey, and burns the saloon down. At the last second Vienna is saved by Johnny Guitar.
Vienna and Johnny escape the posse and find refuge in The Dancin' Kid's secret hideaway. The posse tracks them down, and the last two of Kid's men are killed by infighting. A halt is called to the bloodbath by the posse's leader, McIvers. Emma challenges Vienna to a showdown; The Dancin' Kid calls to Emma but is killed by a bullet to the head by an angered Emma. Emma then shoots Vienna, but only in the shoulder; Vienna shoots Emma in the head. The posse allows Johnny and Vienna to leave the hideout in peace, watching them go.Joan Crawford as Vienna
Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar (Johnny Logan)
Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small
Scott Brady as The Dancin' Kid
Ward Bond as John McIvers
Ben Cooper as Turkey Ralston
Ernest Borgnine as Bart Lonergan
John Carradine as Old Tom
Royal Dano as Corey
Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams
Paul Fix as Eddie
Rhys Williams as Mr. Andrews
Ian MacDonald as Pete
The film opened to negative reviews. Despite a number of initial negative reviews, in the USA and Canada Johnny Guitar grossed more than $2,500,000 as of January 1955 ($21,396,003.72 in 2012 dollars, adjusted for inflation) and was No. 27 on Variety's list of top money makers of 1954.
Variety commented, "It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle... The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time."
Bosley Crowther singled out Crawford's physical bearing for criticism in his New York Times review, stating "... no more femininity comes from her than from the rugged Mr. Heflin in 'Shane.' For the lady, as usual, is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades."
The film later became regarded as one of Ray's best films, topped by the famous title song.
The film is beloved by French filmmaker François Truffaut, who described it as the "Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream". Truffaut was especially impressed by the film's extravagance: the bold colors, the poetry of the dialogue in certain scenes, and the theatricality which results in cowboys vanishing and dying "with the grace of ballerinas".
In his 1988 release Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar pays homage to the film. His lead character Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a voice artist, passes out while dubbing Vienna's voice in a scene where Johnny (voiced earlier by Pepa's ex-lover Iván) and Vienna banter about their conflicted past. Almodóvar's film also ends with a chase and an obsessed woman shooting at his lead character.
In 1998, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum listed Johnny Guitar as one of the 100 best American films.
In 2012, Japanese film director Shinji Aoyama listed Johnny Guitar as one of the Greatest Films of All Time. He said, "Johnny Guitar is the only movie that I‘d like to remake someday, although I know that it’s impossible. It’s probably closest to the worst nightmare I can have. I know for sure that my desire to remake this movie comes from my warped thought that I want to remake my own nightmare."
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Emma Small – Nominated Villain
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Western Film
Many critics, including Roger Ebert, have pointed out that the film is a hidden commentary on the McCarthy witch-hunts. The film is more than just a Western – Truffaut, who admired the film, called it "a phony Western".
In an interview in the Criterion Collection release of The Killing, Sterling Hayden said that he did not care for Johnny Guitar. "They put string, like you get at the grocery store, over my guitar in case I accidentally hit them," he said, acknowledging that "I can't play guitar, and can't sing a good-goddamn, either." "I was at war on that film, during the daytime, with Joan Crawford," he recalled, "and at night with my second wife." Despite his reservations about the film, Hayden acknowledged its popularity.
According to Martin Scorsese, contemporary American audiences "didn't know what to make of it, so they either ignored it or laughed at it." European audiences, on the other hand, free of conventional biases, saw Johnny Guitar for what it was: "an intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtexts that rendered it extremely modern."
The film has been released in VHS, DVD and Blu-ray formats.
Johnny Guitar was adapted into a stage musical, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2004, with a book by American television producer Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyrics by Joel Higgins, and music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins. It starred Judy McLane, Ann Crumb, Steve Blanchard, and Robert Evan, and was the recipient of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, as well as a nominee for the Lucille Lortel Awards and the Drama Desk Awards.The film is seen briefly in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as the characters portrayed by Carmen Maura and Fernando Guillén are dubbers for the film into Spanish.
While on the run, the murderous couple in La Sirène du Mississipi, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve, go to a showing of Johnny Guitar in Lyon and discuss the film in the street afterwards.
In Bonanza episode 12.1, "The Night Virginia City Died", Vienna's bar is burned down for the umpteenth time. The footage is spectacular, and appears to have been used in many films and TV shows.