Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar

Francois Truffaut: 'A Wonderful Certainty'

('L'Admirable Certitude', Cahiers du Cinema 46, April 1955, written under the pseudonym Robert Lachenay)

We made our discovery of Nicholas Ray seven or eight years ago with Knock on Any Door. Then at the 'Biarritz Rendez-vous' we had a dazzling confirmation in They Live By Night, which is still unmistakably his best film. Later In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground and The Lusty Men were released in Paris at one time or another - and went virtually unnoticed by all but the most discerning - and then finally Johnny Guitar.

A young American film-maker - of the Wise, Dassin and Losey generation - Nicholas Raymond Kienzle is somewhat, in fact very much, the passionate discovery of the 'young critics'. Nick Ray is an auteur in our sense of the word. All his films tell the same story, the story of a violent man who wants to stop being violent, and his relationship with a woman who has more moral strength than himself. For Ray's hero is invariably a man lashing out, weak, a child-man when he is not simply a child. There is always moral solitude, there are always hunters, sometimes lynchers. Those who have seen the films I have just mentioned could multiply and enrich the parallels by themselves; the others will just have to trust me, and that will be their little punishment.

Johnny Guitar is by no means its auteur's best film. Generally, Ray's films bore the public, irritated as they are by the films' slowness, their seriousness, indeed their realism, which shocks them by its extravagance.

Johnny Guitar is not really a Western, nor is it an 'intellectual Western'. It is a Western that is dream-like, magical, unreal to a degree, delirious. It was but a step from the dream to Freudianism, a step our Anglo-Saxon colleagues have taken by talking about the 'psychoanalytical Western'. But the qualities of this film, Ray's qualities, are not those; they cannot possibly be seen by anyone who has never ventured a look through a camera eyepiece. We flatter ourselves - and it is in this that we are opposed to another form of criticism - that we are able to retrace the origins of cinematic creativity. Contrary to Andre Bazin, I think it is important that a director should be able to recognize himself in the portrait that we draw of him and his films. Otherwise, we have failed. The hallmark of Ray's very great talent resides in his absolute sincerity, his acute sensitivity. He is not of great stature as a technician. All his films are very disjointed, but it is obvious that Ray is aiming less for the traditional and all-around success of a film than at giving each shot a certain emotional quality. Johnny Guitar is 'composed', rather hurriedly, of very long takes divided into four. The editing is deplorable. But the interest lies elsewhere: for instance in the very beautiful positioning of figures within the frame. (The posse at Vienna's is formed and moves in a V-shape, like migratory birds.) Nicholas Ray is to some extent the Rossellini of Hollywood; in the kingdom of mechanization he is the craftsman, lovingly fashioning small objects out of holly wood. Hence a hue and cry against the amateur! There is not one of Ray's films without nightfall. He is the poet of nightfall, and in Hollywood everything is permissible, except poetry. Hawks, for example, keeps it at arm's length, and Hitchcock cautiously ventures four or five shots each time, in small doses. While a Hawks settles down in Hollywood - in reality, he spends most of the year in Switzerland - and takes things easy, flirting with tradition all the better to flout it, and always winning, Ray is incapable of 'doing a deal' with the devil and turning the arrangement to his advantage - he is picked on and loses the battle even before he starts fighting.

Hawks and Ray form an opposition rather like Castellani and Rossellini.

With Hawks we witness a triumph of the mind, with Nick Ray it is a triumph of the heart. You can refute Hawks in the name of Ray (or vice versa), or admit them both, but to anyone who would reject them both I make so bold as to say this: Stop going to the cinema, don't watch any more films, for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a view-finder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema. An insufferable pretension? No: a wonderful certainty.