Character Introduction: Johnny Guitar

Introducing characters is an art form.

I’ve been working on a TV pilot and while we’ve had the plot arcs nailed for months, making sure we get the characters across economically while being interesting and not too expository and using action while fitting them seamlessly into the plot and explaining how they relate to other characters without having them say something like “Oh hello there, my boyfriend!” etc . . . is not easy.

In film, you have a very small window. If your story isn’t about the character discovering themselves (Jason Bourne, Orlando) or if the character isn’t an established icon (James Bond, Elle Woods), you need to introduce them not just in a short span of time, but while keeping it interesting and establishing what this character is like for the audience.

As many ways exist as characters.

You can introduce them with assets other than their face:

 

You can do it with animation and title sequences:

You can do it with epic entrances, you can be cheeky about hiding their face in shadows or under cowls like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, you can have other characters hype them and then subvert it by introducing someone completely unlike the description, you can have their teacher call their four names. you can have them introduce themselves, you can do it via one of the greatest montages. Here’s a video essay of several ways.

 

Or you can do it like Johnny Guitar, which we’re going to break down today.

The whole intro above; slideshow is of shots discussed below in #s 1 and 2.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

1. The Situation: Standoff

The film’s opening 10 minutes have shown us Johnny Guitar (Sterling Haden) and given us a quick rundown of the history between the lead character Vienna (Joan Crawford) and the mob members. Vienna has given a 5-minute diatribe but Johnny has only ordered a drink, so we know their respective communicative styles. Then a group of four led by the Dancin’ Kid stumble through the saloon doors, and everything gets tense.

The shots show us the respective groups; tense, with the youngest gunslinger’s slightly trembling hand hanging over his gun, the groups staring at each other but grouped in seperate shots. Each cut goes back and forth from the sides of the room, and thus the direction the characters are staring: left, right, left, right.

 

2. Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny

In a medium wide, as Vienna glares, a background character coughs and turns towards the bar. The edit cuts on his turn (this whole film cuts on the action or on the blink very well) to a medium shot of him theatrically pouring and slugging a shot of whiskey, then putting the glass down on the bar.

The glass rolls, we get a somewhat humorous wide-eyed stare of panic from a posse member (not the last time the film will use a character in such a way), and then the glass rolls towards the edge, closer and closer until . . .

Look at everything this shot accomplishes:

– A great little dolly-and-pan to go from closeup of glass to medium of character’s face.

– It brings into the scene a character who until now was sitting quietly minding his own business as the rest of the characters faced off.

– It shows he has quick hands (we don’t know it yet, because he doesn’t even carry a gun, but he’s a quick draw and quicker shot).

– He does it all without spilling a drop of coffee.

Then he literally steps between the two groups.

 

3. Cutting the Tension

He sizes up the situation.

Asks one dangerous man for a cigarette.

Asks another for a light. (And if you don’t think that’s sexual . . . !)

Waxes rhapsodic about coffee and smokes.

Gives us his name. “Johnny Guitar.”

Then when scoffed at, coolly delivers a line which is technically a question but definitely a challenge: “Anybody care to change it?”

Besides looking good and generating tension of all sorts, what has this scene accomplished? It’s set two groups against each other for the rest of the film, and put a mysterious out-of-towner in the middle, where he’ll stay for the rest of the film. It’s told us his name, but more importantly who he is: a man not afraid, who’d rather defuse a situation but is confident in his ability to use brute force if he has to. A man with quick hands and a quick wit, who likes the little pleasures in life. Despite his words, his eyes tell us he loves whiskey and women. And we’re convinced he can handle all comers.

A perfect character introduction; expedient, effective, and elegant.

 

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