Gunslinger Johnny Guitar (Hayden) does his darndest to protect casino boss Vienna (Crawford) from the bitter jealousies of the ruthless Emma Small (McCambridge).
A truly demented Western, with vividly colourful settings and and an almost operatic intensity of emotional and physical violence. The saloon where much of the action takes place is hewn out of a mountanside and boasts an interior wall of jagged red rock, which – along with several clouds of red dust – gives the whole proceeding an infernal tinge, while characters are symbolically clad in devil-black or angel-white.
Many of the genre's rules are broken: big confrontation scenes take place indoors and are framed like stage tableaux, the suggestively named and fetishistically outfitted cowboys Johnny Guitar and the Dancin’ Kid are the sex symbols (though both Hayden and Brady are well into battered middle age), and strong-willed women (Crawford, McCambridge, both unique creatures with their gargoyle-like snarls and Expressionist body language) take leading roles as the antagonists who square off in gunfights, lead or face down lynch mobs and are driven to slaughter by their lusts.
Deliberately artificial‑looking and heavy on high-flown dialogue, this has a certain subversive aspect for the 1950s as leftist director Nicholas Ray casts Ward Bond, a real‑life McCarthyite, as the bigoted head of the lynch mob (as an inside joke, Bond got a lot of similar roles while the blacklist was in force), but it is most cherishable for its wonderfully overwrought performances (note John Carradine as the broom-pusher who finally gets noticed in his death scene, Royal Dano as a consumptive outlaw and Ernest Borgnine as one of his patented cowboy brutes) and bizarre musical stretches.
It has been called Freudian, feminist, operatic, high camp and plain bizarre. Best of all, the film acts as a vigorous indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunts; as a lynch mob rides after Crawford while McCambridge bullies witnesses into false confessions.