Monday, April 26, 2010


Intense, sexually charged western with almost psychedelic colors and oddly stylized performances. It's entertaining, but it feels a little like work to get through it. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a rough-and-tough saloon/casino keeper whose establishment is almost literally on the edge of nowhere—there's a town nearby though we never see much of it, and Vienna is holding on until the railroad comes through. Though she hangs out with a shady character known as the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), she's been holding a torch for Johnny (Sterling Hayden, pictured with Crawford), a former gunslinger who now carries a guitar, and when he strolls into the saloon during a duststorm, she agrees to hire him. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) leads a group of ranchers who don't want the railroad and don't like Vienna's plans—and Emma in particular hates Vienna because she thinks Vienna and the Kid were responsible for her brother's death in a robbery. (Emma calls Vienna a "railroad tramp," but Vienna, standing on the staircase, replies, "Down there, I sell whiskey and cards; all you can buy up those stairs is a bullet in the head.") A tangle of events, including a robbery and a lynching, lead to a tense final confrontation between Vienna and Emma.

Most critics begin discussions of this film by noting two important characteristics: its gender-bending dynamics and its camp atmosphere. The fact that the two strongest characters are women and the men are relatively weak is unusual for the era and for the genre, but today’s viewers won’t be as startled by these role-reversals. I'm not sure the word "camp" is the right one to use here, but there is definitely a homoerotic tinge to the proceedings; both Vienna and Emma dress like men, and one of Vienna's employees says, “She thinks like [a man], acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." Emma pretty clearly has a love/hate thing going with Vienna, and the intensity of their dialogue is probably why the camp label has stuck. Actually, much of the dialogue is delivered in an exaggerated, mannered fashion, and that along with the artificial look of the sets and the saturated color scheme makes the entire movie feel stagy, not necessarily a bad thing. The film is frequently read as an allegory for the McCarthy era; young Turkey (Ben Cooper) is forced into a "naming names" situation and he lies and gives up names in hopes of avoiding a lynching. Both leading men are basically supporting characters, and both are a little sexy in their relative passivity. Ward Bond is an ally of Emma's, and Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine also appear. I said at the beginning that it felt like work to get through this, but it's worth it, and a second viewing will make you appreciate it even more. [TCM]

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