This weekend I watched Johnny Guitar for the first time since I was in film school. What struck me immediately was the pacing. From the moment Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) walks into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford), I was mesmerized. Director Nicholas Ray knows how to use silence masterfully. There’s no music or dialogue, yet there’s already tension in the air, as Johnny looks around the empty place and makes eye contact with Vienna’s three employees. He’s a stranger and clearly they’re on edge.
The effect is mesmerizing, and is compounded when Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) enters a few minutes later accompanied by the Sheriff (Frank Ferguson) and about a dozen men who will later form her posse. Emma and her men are looking for the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and his men, who they accuse of robbing a stagecoach. But the real tension is generated between these two powerful women, their mutual hatred and their sublimated sexual attraction.
Ray understands the power of this psychological premise and lets the story unfold on its own pace. He doesn’t overload the plot. There are no unnecessary surprise twists. The audience knows the women are in the grip of powerful emotional forces which will lead to a violent climax and we watch, almost as if caught by the tide ourselves. It’s a perfect example of a director trusting the material. If you have a powerful conflict, you don’t need pyrotechnics or plot twists get in the way; if anything, you can let the story unfurl at its own pace. The effect is hypnotic and emotionally satisfying.