The Western genre is among the oldest forms of narrative film. Westerns provide depictions of survival behaviours in settlements that lack the institutional regulation of law, social order and justice. 1 The familiar character types that inhabit this genre – drifter, gunslinger, lawman, posse, saloon owner – form the framework through which stories about the settler unfold in hostile socio-physical environments. Conflict and resolution are played out in life-and-death scenarios of power-mongering and vulnerability. These expressions are woven into the gendering of characters, situating individuals in often-predictable social roles. Thus, the Western offers a dialectic of the man–woman binary.

However, gendering is not a clear-cut male–female assignment. It manifests as a continuum between masculinity and femininity that can swing in ambiguous cycle – as in the character of Vienna (Joan Crawford) in the stylised 1954 Western Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954). The story centres on Vienna, whose casino-saloon sits on the outskirts of town. The principal player complementing the gritty saloon boss is unforgotten-lover Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden), who re-enters her world as Johnny Guitar. Vienna's real estate is prized by a railroad investor. The proposed rail service rankles Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), Vienna's insidious archenemy, who frames her as an outsider and mercenary. Emma's malice drives the conflict of the narrative.

A study of this film reveals a gender fluidity that forms its psychological nexus. Positioning Johnny Guitar within the Western genre highlights its unique gender presentation, particularly in the way it uses Vienna as a device to refute stereotypical notions. In the words of Robert James Cardullo, Johnny Guitar is "fair to the genre," but there is an "unexpected switch in the female element"2 that challenges the standard representations of the heroine as either heart-of-gold prostitute or "courageous virgin."3

Fringeing the gender twist, two whimsical aspects of this film are enigmatic. Why is it called Johnny Guitar? Why is the roulette wheel and its circularity foregrounded in the gigantic overhead candelabrum that illuminates Vienna's saloon-casino piano bar? The answer to these questions are signs of Johnny Guitar's thematic trajectory that contemplates identity-making as fluid, and they signify chance and change. They index the gender role switching of Vienna and Johnny that teases audience expectations. Also, they simultaneously peg the dramatic undertow of male acceptance of Vienna's authority in the social order. An example is the scene depicting the ever-loyal Tom, who has been ordered by Vienna to give the newly arrived Johnny Guitar a meal: "Workin' for a woman, and likin' it," declares Tom to Johnny, in the saloon kitchen.

The symbolism of the roulette-wheel mise-en-scene is realised early in the film, where Vienna already senses danger looming. Vienna's romantic desire is to hear it at play: "Spin the wheel, Eddie."
"What for? There's no customers," quips the cynical Eddie.
"I like the sound of it."
This vignette offers a cinematic intertextual leap. It contextually parallels another old-flame love story Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), a chilling tale of Nazi persecution. Here, Vienna's words mirror the famous words spoken by Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa Lund: "Play it, Sam . . . Play As Time Goes By." This poignant reference subtly frames the murderous Gestapo of the Casablanca narrative, signalling the caprice of danger-to-come in Johnny Guitar. It situates Vienna as alpha female – politically aware and vulnerable, but ultra-cool. In the unfolding dramatic friction, antihero Emma incites the townsfolk to violent hatred, and tries to use them to expunge Vienna from society. Emma's primary beef is her unrequited lust for the Dancin' Kid – a silver-mining cowboy who frequents Vienna's classy establishment with his gang of three. He is a contender for Vienna's romantic attention, spurning the sexually frustrated antihero.

Mitigating Emma's venom, lovelorn Johnny squirms his way back into Vienna's sexual and everyday heart, having previously sledge-hammered their paradise with his fear-of-marriage baggage. In the voice of yearning female, Johnny pleads to the sceptical Vienna,"Tell me something nice. Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited." Vienna renews her trust in Johnny, revitalising their partnership. This alliance comes in handy as Emma's vengeance is realised, and our heroine is dragged away for execution by an incensed mob. At this tumultuous point, maniacal Emma shoots down the magnificent candelabrum, which bursts into flame and decimates Vienna's saloon-casino. Johnny, however, heroically rescues Vienna from the hanging noose. They flee to the hideout of the Dancin' Kid, where Vienna prepares to battle the approaching posse. Johnny stands faithfully by her. In this final chapter, while she is talking with the Dancin' Kid, Johnny performs the intimate act of buckling her trouser belt – just as a woman would adjust her man's bow-tie. This resonates symbolically with Gallagher's observation of the primeval Western as "a vehicle for social change,"4 and foregrounds Vienna and Johnny as unorthodox identity-making devices.

Both Johnny and Vienna traverse the template boundaries of the hero–heroine gender divide. Multiple cinematic devices are used to deliver Vienna's persona. Foremost are her gravelly if-I-don't-kill-you-first tough-talkin' and her spectacular wardrobe, which oscillates between John Wayne-style gun-holstered costumery and super-glam Dior-like gowns. Dialogue and wardrobe are bricolaged with two other devices. First, the mise-en-scene, which portrays Vienna as both a loving woman preparing breakfast for her man and, conversely, fearless saloon boss ordering the angry mob. Then the pièce de résistance, Vienna's luminous and hypnotic gaze which permeates all objects in her line of vision: the audience, individuals, the mob. The collective melodramatic effect of these devices is to equalise features stereotypically associated with 'woman' and with 'man.'

Vienna is the post-1940s American woman who was earning her own buck, wearing trousers and becoming sexually emancipated. She epitomises the woman that cinema-viewers would see on the 1950s film noir screen, who today walks the streets of democratic worlds. In the melodramatic flux of Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray challenges the orthodoxy of gendering and social order, and puts man and woman where they should be – as simply human. As John Duncan Talbird states, "the beautiful thing about this film is that it constantly unravels as you try to fix it in its place."5