Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) presents its most prominent setting, Vienna’s saloon, in a very uncomfortable manner. It represents a landmark doomed by a self-righteous group of settlers (Emma Small and her posse) plot-wise, but by mise-en-scene and cinematographic choices, the quiet saloon also emanates an ominous aura and consistently tries to detach the audience from the locale despite many of the characters, and specifically the protagonist hoping for its salvation. This presents an interesting dichotomy to the vast, orchestra-accompanied wilderness that surrounds the saloon. From the cold, dead stares of the lifeless bartender in the background of many shots, to the absences of close-ups and non-diegetic instrumentals within the first thirty minutes of the film, the saloon, despite its relevance and value to characters such as Vienna and Johnny Guitar, becomes a creepy and unsettling stage for many events of the story; making it difficult for the audience to empathize with it’s inevitable downfall.
The film begins with a title card sequence upon a static backdrop of shrubbery, mountains and distant clouds; a lingering sight that doesn’t truthfully establish forthcoming events in Vienna’s saloon. Her saloon may be quiet, but it is always occupied, and whilst the opening sequence, in which we are introduced to Johnny Guitar, is filled with a bravado of horns and orchestral accompaniment, the saloon itself is inversely populated by the sound of wind, tumbleweed, and stark silences - something perhaps more associated with the western expanse in which the story takes place. Yet for this dichotomy in sound, the initial visuals after the credit sequence foreshadow the destruction of locale, and the audience takes the place ...
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... friendships, and many other events within the walls of the saloon. However, the saloon itself remains the same, as do select occupants - which in turn offers a stark contrast to the actions inside of it and the wilderness it lies beside. So at the end of the day, when it all burns down to the ground, all that’s left to feel is confusion and discomfort - the place that occupies a majority of the movie becomes a place that you never quite understood; perhaps your empathy is better directed elsewhere.
Charney, Leo. “Historical Excess: Johnny Guitar's Containment” Cinema Journal 29, No. 4 (1990): 28-30. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Hardy, Phil. The Western. London: Aurum Press Ltd, 1991. Print.
Cresswell, Tim. Defining Place. Egham: Elsevier, 2009. Web. 20 Nov 2013.
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