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Ray, Nicholas (1911-1979)  
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In the lead role of disillusioned veteran rodeo-rider Jeff McCloud, Robert Mitchum eloquently reveals vulnerability and sensitivity beneath his reserved, archetypal masculine exterior. The film concerns his relationship with a struggling young married couple, Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy, Susan Hayward).

A longtime rodeo fan, Wes adores Jeff and is happy to help him get a job at the ranch at which he works. In exchange, Jeff trains Wes and subsequently acts as his manager on the rodeo circuit. Wes's decision to abandon his settled life distresses Louise and contributes to the growing tension among the characters.

The interactions between Jeff and Wes have subtle undertones, but their love is sublimated into mutual (and competitive) affection for Louise. However, same-sex desire is signified more overtly by the flirtatious manner of a lanky female rodeo rider (Maria Hart), who tells Louise about her torrid affair with Jeff. In both In a Lonely Place and Lusty Men, female characters are empowered to convey feelings that might have seemed too provocative if expressed by male figures.

Johnny Guitar

After completing Lusty Men, Ray was assigned to add finishing touches to four films, largely completed by others. Disheartened, he bought out his contract and left RKO in February 1953, intending to establish his own production company. Lacking financial resources to achieve that goal, he signed on with MCA, an entertainment agency that originated story concepts, hired cast and production teams, and then arranged for movies to be produced at various studios on its behalf.

Filmed in 1953 and released in 1954, Johnny Guitar originated as a typical MCA project, utilizing four of the agency's leading clients: star Joan Crawford; director Nicholas Ray; novelist Roy Chanslor, who wrote the book on which the film is based and the original script; and writer Philip Yourdan, who extensively revised Chanslor's initial script in collaboration with Ray. Under contract (through MCA) to Republic Pictures on a single film basis, Ray was flattered to be given the dual functions of director and producer.

However, his control of production was significantly undermined by conflicts with Joan Crawford, who sought to exert authority commensurate with her lavish salary. Although Ray planned to exploit the hostility between Crawford and supporting actress Mercedes McCambridge, he was unprepared for the consequences of their intense dislike of each other. Crawford insisted that Ray eliminate several of McCambridge's scenes that he had already filmed, and she demanded that her own role be expanded to fill the gaps left by these proposed cuts. To emphasize the seriousness of her demands, Crawford destroyed McCambridge's costumes and made arrangements to leave Sedona, Arizona where the film was being shot.

Worried executives from Republic forced Ray to implement all of the changes requested by Crawford. Although the modifications necessitated significant additional costs, Republic also insisted that Ray adhere to the original budget and schedule, thus he had to make even more cuts.

Despite the significant problems involved in the production, the film turned out brilliantly, and Ray realized his stated goal of creating a new kind of western. By filming Johnny Guitar almost entirely on location in Arizona, he established an authentic background for the narrative. Yet, lavish, intensely saturated colors; highly stylized, sometimes deliberately wooden, performances; direct addresses to the audience by actors stepping outside the confines of their characters; and several other elements emphasize that the film is an artificial construct.

Most often, the film has been interpreted as a political allegory of America in the McCarthy era. The actions and statements of Emma Small (McCambridge) directly invoke the witch-hunts conducted by HUAC. Although no evidence indicates their involvement, Emma is resolutely determined that Vienna (Crawford) and her friends should be executed for the murder of her brother. On numerous occasions, Emma seeks to encourage testimony against Vienna by offering potential witnesses amnesty if they will tell her what she wants to hear, and she repeatedly tries to convince the sheriff that there is no need to be constrained by the law. Furthermore, Emma describes Vienna's admitted sexual indulgences as a sure indication of propensity to crime.

In his statements about the film, Ray emphasized that he wanted to reconfigure the usual gender stereotypes of the western by focusing upon the interactions of the two primary female characters, Vienna (Crawford) and Emma Small (McCambridge). Wearing a severe black costume, Emma projects a very masculine aura throughout the movie. At no point does Emma reveal any softness, and she insists on leading the posse trying to track down Vienna.

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