‘Johnny Guitar’ plays like an absurdist’s dream

Posted July 16, 2009, at 6:46 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

At Pickering Square

JOHNNY GUITAR, directed by Nicholas Ray, written by Philip Yordan, 105 minutes, unrated. Tonight only, free at sundown, Bangor’s Pickering Square. Lawn chairs are recommended.

The fourth film in the River City Cinema Society’s popular “Summer Camp” series is Nicholas Ray’s great camp movie, “Johnny Guitar.” It stars Joan Crawford as Vienna, a swanky saloon-casino owner in the Old West who knows the value of cutting cards, employing men to spin her roulette wheel, and who at one point is called “a railroad tramp not fit to live among decent people.”

Sounds harsh, but Vienna can take it.

Crawford plays Vienna as nobody’s fool. Back straight, hair pulled into a vice grip of brown curls, lips as red as a stop sign, gun at the ready, she’s a force, this one. As one of her employees remarks, “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 one.” And yet Vienna has a softer, more feminine side, such as when she closes the bar, puts on an elaborate white gown, and plays the piano with festive pluck.

Philip Yordan wrote the script (under the influence?) and what he conceived is a story that involves how a mean, ferocious woman named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge, unforgettable) is determined to see Vienna hang because she believes that Vienna was involved in her brother’s murder.

When Vienna’s long-ago lover, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), rides back into her life, the movie heaves and sighs as the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang (including Ernest Borgnine) also storm the saloon and start to cause trouble. Were they also involved in the death of Emma’s brother? Since Emma is certain of it — and because she wields absolute control over the men in this movie — soon the kid gloves are off, guns are drawn, and accusations are hurled.

About those accusations — the dialogue in this movie is beyond comprehension. Consider, for example, this exchange between a gun-wielding Vienna, the law men who have come to get her, and Emma, who wants her dead.

Vienna: “Get out! Get out all of you!”

Emma, in a low voice: “That’s big talk for a little gun. You can’t shoot all of us.”

Vienna, bemused: “Two of you will do.”

Emma, challenging: “You don’t have the nerve.”

Vienna: “Try me.”

The men around them: “Put down that gun, Vienna. Put down the gun.”

Vienna: “Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head.” She swaggers. She smirks. “Now…which do you want?”

As the men scramble away, Emma approaches like a pint-sized version of the Black Death in a green elf’s uniform: “I’m going to kill you.”

Vienna, towering over her: “I know — if I don’t kill you first.”

Here’s what’s certain — the movie will kill audiences, but in the best way. Just watching the sparring between Crawford and McCambridge is enough to send you over the moon. As for the movie, it’s an absurdist’s dream — in one scene in which guns are drawn and tensions are high, the strapping Hayden enters the bar with a delicate tea cup in his hand. You watch the scene thinking, “Oh, no he didn’t.” But he did. And that’s just the start of it in what’s easily the best film in the “Summer Camp” series.

Grade: A

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In theaters

BRUNO, directed by Larry Charles, written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer, 88 minutes, rated R.

The new Sacha Baron Cohen movie, “Bruno,” really isn’t a movie at all. Calling it one is sort of like calling mutton the new white meat. It isn’t so, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll nevertheless refer to it as such here.

This blast of flamboyant bombast is a sketch comedy of bad taste and shocking moments that took four writers to conceive and toss up onto the screen. Sometimes they score — the opening moments are the movie at its most outlandish and best — and other times they fail, which makes for a movie whose highs and lows conspire to make for an uneven experience, to say the least.

And what experiences we have in “Bruno.” The film is about the uber-gay Austrian fashionista Bruno (Cohen), who aspires to be a worldwide superstar no matter what. That’s the slim thread that carries the movie forward — but it isn’t much, and to be fair to the film, it really isn’t meant to be.

The whole point behind “Bruno” is to push buttons. It’s to make those not in on the joke feel even more uncomfortable with the gay community than they already are. “Yes,” some righteously will claim. “That’s exactly what it means to be homosexual!” Other will know that little of this has anything to do with being gay — it’s satire. And one with a double-sided edge.

Bruno’s very being — a toss of frosted hair, dusted cheek bones that could give Joan Crawford a run for money, and outfits that intentionally are ridiculous — will at once do its share of damage to the gay community, and its part in helping it. Bruno is, after all, the poster boy for homophobia, a stereotype so amplified and over-wrought, the wrong people will be nodding and happily repelled, while others will come waiting for the laughs to strike.

And that’s the real problem with “Bruno.” Unlike Cohen’s much funnier “Borat,” “Bruno” seems oddly out of touch with current times. It doesn’t reflect the now — instead, it reflects the then. It’s a movie about a gay stereotype written and performed by a straight man who is married with a child. He doesn’t quite get it. The film does have its moments, just not enough of them. You watch the movie with a kind of bemused puzzlement. What is “Bruno” trying to accomplish? If the film wants to make us laugh, it doesn’t do so enough. But if it wants to infuriate and affirm certain fears, it succeeds.

And where’s the fun in that?

Grade: C

www.weekinrewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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