Impossible Outlaws: Gender, Space and Utopia in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Film poster. Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. (Source: Wikipedia). Giant figure of Crawford in masculine clothing, reaching for her gun, towers over other figures from the cast.Joan Crawford meets utopian theory in the outlaw territory of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, in this discussion of the film ‘Johnny Guitar’. It was originally published in 2002 in online journal  Altitude, Vol.2, Article 1. The version here  corrects some errors in the Altitude version as well as updating links where necessary. Substantive corrections are indicated in footnotes.

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Key Words: community, feminism, film, gender, Joan Crawford, Johnny Guitar, outlaws, queer, sexuality, TAZ, temporary autonomous zone, utopia

Key Names: Hakim Bey, Joan Crawford, E.M. Forster, Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray

Notes and References →

Impossible Outlaws: Gender, Space and Utopia in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Introduction: Outlaw Dreams and Deserted Valleys

In the country of Robin Hood, outlaws have a privileged place in the imagination. Over the centuries, in a multiplicity of Robin Hood narratives from children’s histories to recycled Hollywood costume dramas, outlawry has come to stand for colour and excitement in a monochrome world, and the romance of resistance to an unjust and repressive society. Central to the mythography is Sherwood Forest, the greenwood, the outlaws’ hideout; a place of nature separate from a corrupt society and the machinations of the Sheriff, where the outlaws have a degree of autonomy, and are able to rehearse the values of a different and better world. Robin Hood and his men merge with more ambiguous representations of the outlaw in the Western, perhaps the oldest genre of popular cinema. The outlaw takes on a generic character; and myths of outlawry and safe hideouts become one of the ways of imagining a changed world, or the creation of a new society that is both inside and outside the old.

Outlawry is a pervasive trope in texts which deal with sexual and gender diversity as forms of dissidence or subversion. The importance of the dream of a safe hideout in this context is illustrated in E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice. Written in 1913, but not published until after Forster’s death in 1971, the novel tells the love story of Maurice and Alec, two men from different social classes. 1 Maurice, visiting a psychiatrist in the hope of curing his homosexuality, speaks of a time when ‘England wasn’t all built over and policed. Men of my sort could take to the greenwood’ (Forster 185, ch.41). In a happy ending rare for the period (or indeed for many decades after), he rejects ‘cure’. ‘He was not ashamed any more. After all, the forests and the night were on his side’ (Forster 187, ch.42). The lovers turn their backs on a disapproving society and simply vanish: lovers outside space and outside time. In a ‘Terminal Note’ added to the manuscript in 1960 (when homosexual acts between men were still illegal in England Forster wrote that he was ‘determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood’ (Forster 218). He goes on to say that the story:

… belongs to an England when it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood. …There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone. People still do escape, one can see them any night at it in the films. But they are gangsters not outlaws, they can dodge civilisation because they are part of it (Forster 221).

The outlaws of the Western differ from those of the gangster movie in that they are more clearly located outside and in opposition to ‘civilisation’. And it is not just the outlaws who (however temporarily) escape, it is the audiences too (however temporarily), in the dreamspace of the cinema. Nevertheless, the quotation encapsulates several of the themes of this paper: the ambivalent dream of escape as a form of resistance; the role of the cinema in creating a space for such dreams; the telling of an impossible story.

Utopianism and Johnny Guitar

To develop these themes I will draw on two strands of contemporary utopian theory. The first focuses on utopianism as much as on utopias, and argues against versions of utopia which are prescriptive, totalising and static, in favour of those which are exploratory, experimental, and open to change (Bammer, Sargisson). Ruth Levitas, (following Ernst Bloch), talks about utopia as ‘the education of desire’ (Levitas 119-123). For her, the realism or realisability of any particular utopia is not the issue; what matters is the longing for a better world. ‘Utopia is the desire for a better way of being’ (Levitas 8).

The second strand looks to everyday life and popular culture for utopian moments, feelings, fantasies, longings, aspirations; for spaces where people reveal or experience their desires for a different, better world and way of being. Such dreams, imaginings, prefigurations — the rehearsal of possibilities vividly evoked in Richard Dyer’s work on entertainment as utopia — are a necessary part of any process of social transformation. ‘[T]he utopianism of entertainment is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents … what utopia would feel like … ’ (Dyer 177). The desire for a transformed world need not be the result of reasoned argument or demonstration, but can be evoked by the transient experiences of such feelings. Dyer identifies these utopian feelings as energy, abundance, intensity, transparency and community, and suggests they are to be found in Westerns among other forms of mass entertainment (Dyer 180-181). Tania Modleski and Jackie Stacey, discussing the pleasures which popular culture offers to women, argue that transcendence and female autonomy should be added to Dyer’s categories of utopian feeling (Modleski 112-113, Stacey 121).

Utopian theorists regularly point to the ambiguity of the word ‘U-topia’ — U (or Eu)-topia meaning the good place: U-topia meaning no place. My particular concern is how, in narratives of utopia, whether fiction, documentary, or high theory, there is a slippage between utopia as a place that does not exist to one that cannot exist, the latter a notion evident in the everyday use of the word ‘utopian’ to denote a foolish and impossible dream. This common-sense idea of utopia as inherently impossible is repeatedly reconstructed in utopian narratives, most often through versions of paradise lost, or the awakening from a dream. If utopia is the education of desire, its constantly repeated narrative is that of desire which has, literally, no place. I would argue further, however, that even when an author intends a more optimistic version, the language and imagery as well as the narrative structure may tell another story. In this article I will consider how potentially utopian space within a cinematic narrative is constructed visually as impossible space: utopia as no place.

John Lamborn Wilson and his alter ego Hakim Bey have written of pirate utopias, arguing that on the high seas or on remote islands seventeenth and eighteenth century pirates were able to create rough democracies, which, however brutal, were less oppressive than the societies from which they came. 2 Bey takes these as examples of temporary autonomous zones, TAZs, where groups of people (usually men) create or seize a space, off the map, out of time, where insurrection can flower. Reading this work made me reflect on some of my own childhood and adolescent fascination with the myths of outlawry, part of my ambivalent longing to escape (but also to challenge, or confound) the world I found myself in, growing up in nineteen-fifties England and North America. I want to use Bey’s concept of psychotopology, or ‘the art of dowsing for potential TAZs’ (Bey 103), and apply it to stories of outlaws and their hideouts. These can be seen not only as symbols of unbelonging and resistance, but also as about spaces — dangerous thoughts in safe spaces, spaces to hide, to try out new possibilities, but spaces always defined by their degree of distance from, and their visibility and vulnerability to, the world which is being resisted.

It is in this context that I will consider the cult film, one of my own favourites, Johnny Guitar. Its director Nicholas Ray studied as a young man with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and spatial relationships are strongly foregrounded in this film, as they are in some of his others. 3 If utopia, whether as possibility or impossibility, is both an imaginary space (a space in and a space for the imagination) — and a place where social relationships can be transformed — then Johnny Guitar provides an interesting site for speculation.

The film, which stars Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge, came out of Republic Studios in 1954. More than most films, Johnny Guitar invokes multiple readings, and it has been called amongst other things a baroque Western, Greek tragedy, Freudian melodrama, anti-MacCarthyite polemic, masochistic women’s film, lesbian camp, and ‘sagebrush Götterdämmerung’ — in short, generic anarchy. 4 And now I shall add to this list by arguing for the utopianism implicit in the film’s constructions of gender and space.

The film tells the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), who has built a saloon in an isolated place some distance from the nearest settlement. Here she awaits the arrival of the railroad, a new town, and the twentieth century. The only people who use the saloon are a bunch of outlaws, led by the Dancing Kid, Vienna’s former lover. The local townspeople are antagonistic to Vienna because of her outlaw associations, and because she represents a threatening future, the alien influx that the railroad will bring, a world about to change. Particularly hostile is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who is, Vienna alleges, herself in love with The Dancing Kid. Denounced by Emma as ‘a railroad tramp … not fit to live among decent people’, Vienna is resented for her deviance. From the first moment she appears she is coded for sexual dominance, a coding reproduced in the visual imagery of much of the publicity material. For most of the film she dresses in what is effectively men’s clothing — jeans, boots, shirt and tie or neckerchief — and wears a gun.

As the film opens, we see Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), whom we might, given the film’s title, reasonably expect to be the film’s main protagonist, riding through a generic Western landscape. His horse is startled by an explosion of rock; we later learn that this is caused by men blasting the way for the railway. Next, as he rides along a ridge, he watches far below him a stagecoach being robbed and a man shot. Throughout this opening sequence Johnny is shown predominantly in long-shot, the viewer distanced from him as he is distanced from the action. His distance and detachment persist throughout most of the film, with the putative hero as a bystander in many of the main scenes. It is not Johnny’s presence that motivates the narrative, even though it is he who takes us into the initial sequence. The camera moves in closer as he rides on through an encroaching dust storm, towards a building that becomes less visible the nearer he gets. This is Vienna’s saloon.

Johnny's first sight of Vienna's saloon emerging from a dust storm against a backdrop of mountains..

The dust storm serves to emphasise the saloon’s spatial isolation. As we move inside with Johnny, we see that the rear wall is bare rock, cut directly into the side of a cliff. The saloon’s location in the present is never clear, though in the future, we learn, it will have prime place by the railroad. Meanwhile it is in a state of suspended animation which will later be broken by the irruptions of movement and noise, firstly from the townspeople with their threats, and then from the outlaws who will bring laughter and music and a different kind of disturbance. One of the men who work for Vienna (there are no women) takes Johnny into the kitchen for food.

Vienna’s first appearance is on the landing at the top of the staircase; the camera looks up at her as she looks down into the saloon. This gives the key to her placing, within both the narrative and the framing of the picture. In most Westerns, upstairs in the saloon is where cowboys go for sex with the bargirls, a space of pleasure. In Vienna’s saloon, ‘all you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head.’ When we enter her private room upstairs, with its elegant decor, it is to see her do business with Mr. Andrews from the blasting company. Her untouched bed is just visible, firmly screened off in the background. Even though later in the film she and Johnny resume what turns out to be an old love affair, we see them together only in the kitchen, in that space marked out from the beginning as belonging to the men who work for her.

Our first view of Vienna seems to be through Johnny’s eyes — but as the camera moves we see he has his back to her, and she is looking down from the balcony at him as he is directed into the male space of the kitchen. Any sense of a stable point of view is lost again as Sam the croupier walks toward and addresses the camera: ‘Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.’ As he speaks, the camera shifts again and we see he is talking to Johnny in the kitchen. From the very first sight of Vienna, the viewer is thrust into a world where spatial and gender dislocations coincide to disrupt the narrative.

The only other female character in the film, Emma, is seen first from Vienna’s viewpoint as Vienna looks down at her from a window. Emma’s brother has been killed in the stagecoach robbery, and she leads a crowd of townsmen to the saloon, intending to arrest Vienna as one of the outlaws. The viewpoint of the camera places us behind the crowd, looking up at Vienna on the upstairs landing where we first saw her. Our attention is further directed to the spatial arrangements by the dialogue, as Emma accuses Vienna of ‘staring down on us like a somebody’, and urges the mob to ‘go get her — drag her down!’ Vienna says that the ranchers and townspeople can’t stand to share their world with anyone else, but that the future will have a place for her — ‘somewhere you don’t own.’ There is a face-off on the stairs, much reproduced in publicity shots. 5 ‘That’s big talk for a little gun’, says Emma, but Vienna’s gun is sufficient to frighten off the men.

Face-off between Vienna and Emma on stairs, with Vienna looking down at Emma.

Emma — I’m going to kill you.

Vienna — I know. If I don’t kill you first.

Victor Perkins says that ‘a vital constituent of the film’s weirdness is its flaunting of the erotic dimension of hatred’ (228). Here the ambiguous looks — of hatred — fascination — desire? — between the two women prefigure the final face-off, the shoot-out at the end, when Vienna does, in self-defence, kill Emma.

The film was not well received on its release. Time called it ‘one of those curious animals, like the tiglon, the hippolope, and the peccadillo … a crossbreed of the western with psychoanalytic case history’ (54). The Monthly Film Bulletin said that the ‘shadow of Krafft-Ebing hangs heavily over this preposterous Western’ (Lambert 100). And as late as 1988 The Listener refers to ‘a sense of wilful disorder, of some strange alien underlife bursting through the conventionally ritualised activity of the Western’ (Combs 35).

Such critics seem to be suffering from genre dysphoria – it is as though the film itself is accused of miscegenation, hybridity, cross-dressing, perversion and monstrosity. Taking these as virtues, meanwhile, French film-maker and cinèaste François Truffaut hailed it as ‘a dream of the West … disorienting … magical … delirious … The Beauty and the Beast of the Western.’ (Lachenay 39, Truffaut 48) 6

Typically, the utopianism of the Western has centred on the imagined space of the open range contrasted to the refinement and confinement of urban places. In this mythography, women generally represent the civilisation and domestication to be opposed to and resisted by nature/ free men. The saloons with their bargirls inhabit the border territories between the two worlds. The original inhabitants of these places exist only to be eliminated; free space must be empty space. The imperialism, racism and misogyny of this vision are well documented. The questions I am raising here relate to whether the subversive mutations of Johnny Guitar hint at other visions, other utopias. Just how subversive it might be in 1954 is indicated by the review in the New Yorker by an appalled John McCarten: ‘It was probably inevitable that somebody would try to change the pattern of Westerns, but I can state authoritatively that this twist is doomed. … Back to Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ (65) — and we remember that it was then the height of what came to be known as the feminine mystique (Friedan).

The title is a man’s name, but it is Joan Crawford who gets star billing. There are different versions of the conflicts on set, but it is clear that Crawford wielded her power as a star to get script changes making her role as Vienna more central. It has been said that in this film Sterling Hayden got the Joan Crawford part, while Crawford, (who was then nearly 50), finally got to play Clark Gable (Wollen 14). It is not quite clear where this then places Emma, played by lesbian icon Mercedes McCambridge, but she is certainly no feminine role model, despite appearing throughout in a skirt. If anything, the film suggests that conventional (respectable) femininity is based on repression and leads to madness. Vienna, on the other hand, has a sexual past, outlaw connections, takes a man’s role and wears men’s clothes — and gets away with it. She gets her man. She loses her saloon, though, and this follows directly from her one moment of quasi-maternal tenderness for the young outlaw Turkey.

A recurrent motif throughout the film is the phallic symbolism of the gun, who has one, and how it should be used. When we first see Johnny, he is apparently unarmed, carrying only his guitar (though we later find out he does have a gun after all). Vienna’s ‘little gun’ serves its purpose, and she uses it first to frighten off the mob, and finally to kill Emma. She also repeatedly tells Johnny when he may and may not use his. In the film’s own terms, this assertion of control does not make Vienna monstrous nor diminish Johnny, although it clearly upset some contemporary critics. (This aspect of the narrative can be interestingly compared with the far more conventional fifties Freudianism of Ray’s next film Rebel Without A Cause, where James Dean’s psychological problems are shown to result from his dominant mother and emasculated father). Gunplay, however, is only one aspect of the film’s play with the trappings of gender.

Laura Mulvey has written from a psychoanalytic perspective of the transvestite pleasures for female spectators in identifying with male characters on the screen. (Mulvey 33, 37). But while her version operates from within a determinist and heterosexualised model of gender, Johnny Guitar suggests the potential for more pleasurable and transgressive role-playing for both its characters and its audiences.

Stacey writes of ‘a pleasure in the fluidity between experienced and imagined selves’ (Stacey 121). However, she is examining women’s relationship to idealised versions of femininity on screen. What is operating here is a more subversive set of pleasures, for some viewers at least, to do with the overturning of conventions of masculinity and femininity. Marjorie Garber argues that ‘transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture’ (Garber 17), while Andrew Britton suggests that film can destabilise gender categories and raise at least the possibility of more equal heterosexual relationships. He writes of films in which:

… the democratic couple is incompatible with bourgeois social relations … the ‘equality’ of the partners is directly associated with the breakdown of Oedipal sexual identities and the anarchic emergence of ‘perverse’ eroticism in which ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are no longer the property of a particular biological sex (Britton 86).

This could be a description of Johnny Guitar, a film which offers a utopian space, a ‘space of possibility’ with (and for) its cross-dressing outlaw heroine, destabilisation of sexual and gender fixities, and its promise of different kinds of imagined relationships.

As the Britton quote hints, another utopian pleasure for audiences is that of the world-turned-upside-down — if only for a couple of hours. 7 Comedy is its more usual vehicle, and it may be that the very seriousness of Johnny Guitar was what its critics found so unsettling. In this respect it is interesting to compare it with the musical comedy Calamity Jane, a star vehicle for Doris Day released the previous year. The tone of the film could hardly be more different from Johnny Guitar (or more distant from the life of the historical Calamity Jane, a distinctly louche character). Although the perky and virginal Day also spends much of the film in a shirt and jeans, she is clearly marked out, blonde pigtails and all, as a tomboy rather than a cross-dresser; that is, as not ‘perverse’. At the end, she grows up to get her man by attaining an acceptable version of adult femininity. 8

In the novel on which the film is based, Roy Chanslor creates a ‘boyish and infinitely feminine’ Vienna (Chanslor 88), and introduces another female character, Elsa, who turns out to be the real outlaw. The Vienna of the film is far more ambiguous a character, outside conventional notions of morality and femininity. The novel highlights clothes, masks, and false facades, and critics including Robertson and Perkin have called attention to the themes of masks and masquerade in both the film and the star persona of Joan Crawford. Robertson argues that Vienna’s costumes draw attention to femininity as masquerade, gender as a social rather than a natural identity (Robertson 37).

The first time we see Vienna in ‘feminine’ clothing is when she appears wearing a low-cut red dress for the big love scene with Johnny (downstairs, in the kitchen). Next morning, as they go out to the bank together, she is dressed conventionally (like Emma), in a skirt. The day is sunny, and Vienna seems softened — is she heading for ordinary domesticity after all? But no, the outing leads to Johnny and Vienna becoming inadvertently implicated in a bank robbery.

The key sequence that demonstrates how the film (ad)dresses and undresses gender is set on the evening of the same day. The posse is out for blood after the robbery, hunting down the Dancing Kid and his gang. The opening scene begins with Vienna, in a gauzy white high-necked dress, lighting the candles on the saloon chandelier. She is alone, having paid off her men and sent them away. But suddenly one of them turns up with the youngest outlaw, Turkey, who has been injured. We see Vienna in Pietà pose, cradling his bleeding body, and against her better judgement she is persuaded to hide him. It is this traditionally feminine response which will lead to the loss of her saloon. The posse arrives, with Emma in the lead, and the camera takes her point of view as she flings open the saloon doors to reveal Vienna — alone, in her white dress, playing the piano in front of the wall of bare red rock.

Medium shot of Emma standing in the middle of the mob of townspeople inside the saloon. They are all dressed in dark clothing.Mob's eye-view of Vienna, in a long white dress, seated at the piano.

In this scene, the codings are ironic; the dress is virginal, which Vienna surely is not. Emma and the posse wear black, the usual colour for outlaws. Vienna, on her platform, at the grand piano, is claiming the public space of her saloon as the private space of a home, thus casting the posse as intruders. She is performing a charade. But at the moment she denounces the posse as hypocritical, Turkey’s hiding place is revealed. She is, after all, ‘one of them’, an outlaw. Vienna and Turkey are taken prisoner, and Emma sets fire to the saloon. Turkey is lynched, but at the last moment Johnny rescues Vienna from the same fate. (‘First chance I ever had to be a hero’). In the ensuing chase, her white dress is ‘like … a lantern’ in the dark, and to emphasise the image it then catches fire. Vienna changes back into her more usual masculine clothes; she will remain in them until the end of the film. In a dress, she will be trapped. It is only in men’s clothes that she can escape — and live.

So far I have concentrated on the utopianism of gender and sexual trangression, the world-turned-upside-down. I will now briefly relate this to a discussion of the film’s versions of community, a concept central to most versions of utopianism. Richard Dyer, writing about utopian sensibility in popular cinema, defines community in part as ‘togetherness, a sense of belonging’, contrasted to the fragmentation of late capitalism, and typically represented in the Western via ‘townships’ or ‘cowboy camaraderie’ (181-182). In Johnny Guitar there are three communities: the ‘respectable’ townspeople and ranchers, the outlaws, and Vienna’s saloon. The first group is represented almost entirely negatively, as at best weak-willed men (and other than Emma we see only men) who at worst are motivated by greed and resentment. Their togetherness is in no way utopian, and they easily become a mob when instigated by Emma. They are most characteristically shown as a group in long-shot with Emma in the foreground. The town itself appears only peripherally, when Vienna and Johnny go to the bank. Most of the inhabitants are at the funeral of Emma’s brother, and the streets are empty. Although it cannot be many miles from the saloon, we never have any sense of its precise location. In Vienna’s saloon is a model town, of a place that does not yet exist; it represents the new world to arrive with the railroad. Turkey hides under the table with the model on it; when he is discovered the table is overturned, and with it Vienna’s hopes for the future. We get a final glimpse of the model as it blazes in the fire that destroys the saloon.

In contrast to the townsmen and ranchers, the outlaws are more clearly differentiated, more likeable and in general more honourable. They have fun; the Dancing Kid really dances; an illustration of Richard Dyer’s utopian category of energy (Dyer 180-181). In Chanslor’s novel they are clearly outlaws from the beginning. In the film, they are given a more ambiguous status: it turns out that it was not they who robbed the stagecoach and killed Emma’s brother. Their secret hideout, ‘the Lair’, is the location of a silver mine, where they share the work and the profits. They do rob the bank, but rationalise this as a response to persecution — if they are treated as outlaws they will become outlaws. Their downfall is brought about by the fatal lack of solidarity generated by Bart, the one real villain among them (who doesn’t like women, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, and is mean to horses). ‘What do you like?’ asks the Dancing Kid? ‘I like me. And I’m taking good care of me’, he replies.

The third community is Vienna’s. Although she is the boss, and it is her saloon, she and her men plan to share in the profits equally, and there is reciprocal loyalty and even tenderness between them. Both spatially and temporally, the saloon is in limbo; awaiting the railroad and the twentieth century; its location somewhere between the town and the outlaws’ territory. It is a place of potential pleasures of the kind rejected by the two puritanical individualists, the ‘good woman’ Emma and the bad outlaw Bart. Vienna herself, in another moral shift from the book, has a sexual past, and it is implied this is how she earned the money for the saloon. She is not ashamed, and in a speech to Johnny she denounces the sexual double standard. Her moral status comes from her courage and integrity, and these qualities are played off her separation, her distance from the townspeople; she is shown repeatedly quite literally looking down on them. ‘Her marginality … evokes her threat as both spatial and ideological’ writes Charney (27). The threat is temporal, as well — if she is not destroyed, in the future she and ‘her kind’ will no longer be marginal.

Belonging to no community is Johnny, riding out of the past with his guitar and his hidden gun. ‘I’m a stranger here myself’, he says at one point, declining to intervene in the bank robbery. Only minimally a hero, his version of unbelonging carries with it a sense of displacement and unease.

Conclusion: Impossible Outlaws

 Emma and Johnny, silhouetted against the exit of a cave, pass through the waterfall into another space.

After Vienna’s saloon is burnt down, and Johnny helps her escape lynching, they flee to the outlaws’ hideout, a small wooden house in a valley that can only be reached along a riverbed, under a waterfall, and through a narrow cleft in the rock.

Whenever the camera passes through the waterfall with the outlaws a few bars of joyful harp music are heard, unlike anything else on the soundtrack, reminding us that this is potentially different space; a place with a different potential. Through the waterfall … down a secret passage … hidden valleys … secret places — these are the recurring magical spaces of children’s stories. The imagery suggests a return to the utopian womb.

Alternatively, this could be a birth, as we see Vienna and Johnny emerge, soaked, vulnerable, on foot, silhouetted against the light: from darkness into sunshine.

Although in the film as a whole, generic expectations of abundant and spectacular landscape are largely denied, the scenes at the hideout are among the few set outdoors. Its daylight and sunshine contrast with the darkness of the saloon. In this place so reminiscent of the pirate utopias described by Bey and Wilson, new social relations, new forms of sexual and social democracy which defy existing hierarchies, seem possible. In the final sequence of the film, Vienna, now in Turkey’s clothes, cooks breakfast for Johnny. As we saw at the saloon, kitchens in this film are certainly not feminine space. There is some semi-serious gunplay between Johnny and the Dancing Kid, now rivals for her affection, and while she cooks she again asserts her control over their use of their guns. The suggestion is that only her strength will enable Johnny to escape his past as a gunfighter. Here, in the hideout, she finally kills her alter ego, Emma. But by then the (other) outlaws are all dead, their secret hideout invaded by the posse/mob. The film ends with the remnants of the posse standing aside to allow Vienna and Johnny to return on foot, back through the hidden entrance, now an exit to nowhere. The final image is of the two embracing against the backdrop of the waterfall. No other world is shown to exist for them. ‘Lovers outside time’ (Guerif 66), but also outside place. No longer in the hidden place, but nowhere else either: impossible outlaws.

And yet …

Some years ago I saw an independent video, Dry Kisses Only, which gives a new soundtrack to the sequence I described at the beginning, with Vienna confronting Emma from the staircase.

— I’m going to kiss you Vienna.

— I know. If I don’t kiss you first. 9

Here the spaces of the film have been re-inscribed as a Temporary Autonomous Zone in which alternative visions generate a space for themselves, and from which the outlaws can ‘re-enter the uneasy dreams of civilisation’ (Wilson 204).

I have suggested in this article that Johnny Guitar constructs utopian spaces in such a way as to emphasise impossibility. But perhaps our imaginations cannot be so easily constrained. If we can create new dreamscapes inside the old, envision new possibilities, utopian desire can constantly be renewed.
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Notes and References


Thanks to Helen Lowe for her comments and suggestions on the ideas in the introductory section, to fellow film enthusiasts Paul Marshall and Alvaro de Miranda for their encouragement and assistance, and to my colleagues at the University of East London and everyone else whose responses to presentations of earlier drafts helped me to develop  my ideas. The archives (and staff) of the British Film Institute Library were an invaluable resource.

Works Cited

Bammer, Angelika. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s. London: Routledge, 1991.

Bey, Hakim. ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone.’ In TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1991: 97-134.

Britton, Andrew. Katherine Hepburn: the Thirties and After, Newcastle: Tyneside Cinema, 1984.

Calamity Jane. Director David Butler. Starring Doris Day and Howard Keel. Warner, 1953.

Chanslor, Roy. [1954]  Johnny Guitar, London: Panther, 1962.

Charney, Leo. ‘Historical Excess: Johnny Guitar’s Containment.’ Cinema Journal Summer 1990: 23-34.

Combs, Richard. ‘Compulsive Viewing.’ The Listener 7 July 1988: 34-35.

Dry Kisses Only, Video. Directors Jane Cottis and Kaucilya Brooke. New York: Women Make Movies, 1990.

Dyer, Richard. [1977] ‘Entertainment and Utopia.’  in Genre: the Musical. Ed. Rick Altman. London: Routledge, 1981: 175-189.

Eisenschitz, Bernard. Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Forster, E.M.  [1971] Maurice. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Friedan, Betty, [1963] The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Guérif, François. ‘Johnny Guitare de Nicholas Ray: Le Theme de la Deuxieme Chance.’ Lumière du Cinema October1977: 63-67.

Johnny Guitar. Director Nicholas Ray. Starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. Republic, 1954.

Lachenay, Robert. Pseudonym of Francois Truffaut. ‘L’Admirable Certitude.’ Cahiers du Cinema April 1955: 38-40.

Lambert, Gavin. ‘Johnny Guitar.’ Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1954: 100.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. London: Philip Allan, 1990.

McCarten, John. ‘The Current Cinema.’ New Yorker, June 5, 1954: 65.

Mulvey, Laura, [1981], ‘On Duel in the Sun: Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”’,  in Visual and Other Pleasures. Mulvey. London: Macmillan, 1989: 29-38.

O’Shea, Alan. ‘What a Day for a Daydream: Modernity, cinema and the popular imagination in the late twentieth century.’ Modern Times. Eds. Mica Nava and Alan O’Shea. London: Routledge, 1996: 239-268.

Perkins V. F. ‘Johnny Guitar.’ The Movie Book of the Western. Eds. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye. London: Studio Vista, 1996: 221-228.

Robertson, Pamela. ‘Camping Under Western Stars: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.’ Journal of Film and Video Spring/Fall 1995: 33-49.

Rebel Without A Cause. Director Nicolas Ray. Starring James Dean and Natalie Wood. Warner, 1955.

Sargisson, Lucy. Contemporary Feminist Utopianism. London: Routledge, 1996.

Stacey, Jackie. Stargazing. London: Routledge,1994.

Tasker, Yvonne. Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. London: Routledge, 1998.

Truffaut, Francois. [1955] ‘La Belle et la Bete du Western.’ Avant-Scène du Cinéma. March 1974: 48.

— See also Lachenay (Truffaut’s pseudonym).

Time. Atlantic edn. 14 June 1954: 54-56.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1995.

Wollen, Peter. ‘Never at Home.’ Sight and Sound May 1994:12-15.
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  1. Details corrected 2014: The version of this article previously published in Altitude gave incorrect publication details.
  2. Details corrected 2014: At the time I wrote the version of this article published in Altitude, I did not know that Bey and Wilson were the same person.
  3. The screenwriter, Philip Yordan, says in an interview with Bernard Eisenschitz that Ray’s contribution to the script of Johnny Guitar was ‘less on the dramatic than the architectural level, creating settings like the saloon, working on the geometrical relationships between places’. (Eisenschitz 202). Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause is also an interesting example, particularly the scenes in the planetarium.
  4. See Guerif 66-67; Wollen 14; Combs 34; Robertson 47; Charney 26; Time 56.
  5. This scene can be found on YouTube. For a good selection of stills, including several scenes discussed in this article, see here. For publicity shots see imdb; even better ones can be found using Google image search.
  6. My translation. Truffaut wrote about the film under his own name and also using the pseudonym  Robert Lachenay.
  7. Alan O’Shea made this point in a discussion of an earlier version of this paper. See also O’Shea, 244.
  8. A number of feminist writers have sought to reclaim Day as a heroine, and some compare the two films as though they represented the same challenge to conventional femininity. (e.g. Tasker 52, 53). Growing up in the fifties and early sixties I was only able to see Day, as character or star, as all that I wanted not to be (and could not be).
  9. Robertson also mentions this video, but my memory of it differs slightly  from hers (Robertson 38). I saw it only once, years ago, but whatever the video actually contains,  it is my own memory of  this scene that gives resonance to my viewing of Johnny Guitar.