Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has travelled from Albuquerque to this out of the way area in the West where the railroad is being built. He rides up to a saloon and gambling house standing alone and in the violent dust storm he enters the establishment, finds it empty apart from the staff, and walks over to the bar to order a drink. He announces he's here to see the owner, Vienna (Joan Crawford), but the staff react with hostility until she appears on the balcony. These two have a past, and Johnny hopes to rekindle their flame - but he's wandered into a whole mess of trouble.
This was one of those Westerns made with something of an agenda, as it was scripted by Ben Maddow who had been blacklisted under the communist witch hunts of the fifties and was forced to work under the name of Philip Yordan who acted as his front. Which was why the plot and themes were very much in the liberal quarter of the political spectrum, taking down rabid right-wingers who would round on those who had progressive views by not simply spreading rumours, but setting out to actively destroy them for merely having differing opinions rather than being actually dangerous to society at large.
This witch hunting was summed up by the character of Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge with startling venom, practically stealing the show from under the nose of ostensible star Crawford. This scene-stealing, it's safe to say, did not go unnoticed by her, leading Joan in her characteristically unbalanced fashion to wage a feud with McCambridge, often targetting her clothes and flying into rages when she knew she was upstaged. Even the comparitively easygoing Hayden, himself seeing his role downplayed on screen by the competitive nature of his two leading ladies, swore he would never work with the fiery Crawford ever again.
In the story, funnily enough it's McCambridge's Emma who acted more like Crawford, and vice versa, but knowing that the hatred the two actresses felt (well, Joan did anyway, Mercedes ended up feeling sorry for her rival) was carried over into their performances offers an extra frisson to the antics they get up to, culminating in a highly unusual, even today, gunfight between two female characters. Before we get there the tone director Nicholas Ray worked up was best described as overripe, with most of the action taking place in a searingly-colourful, barely suppressed delirium as Emma tries to run Vienna out of town, or if that doesn't succeed, frame her and have her executed.
Johnny was the man caught in the middle, but such were the men landed in the midst of this feminine fury that they tended to fade into the background, in spite of Johnny's quirk of carrying a guitar instead of a gun. Scott Brady played the Dancin' Kid who is the other man in Vienna's life, but far less scrupulous than Johnny, which leads him to drastic measures when spurned Emma takes against him also, and in support were familiar faces such as Ernest Borgnine (still in his bully boy phase), John Carradine (getting a big scene near the end) and Royal Dano (a curious cowboy who reads and is possibly tubercular). But this was Joan and Mercedes' movie really, one woman hopelessly sexually frustrated and paranoid about the advancing Easterners (symbolism, anyone?) and the other a woman with a loose past, but the moral high ground. It might get more conventional in the middle stretch than its reputation led you to expect, but the overheated ending was memorable. Music by Victor Young; Peggy Lee co-wrote the theme.