Based on Roy Chanslor’s novel and directed by Nicholas Ray, the gunslinger Johnny returns after five years to Vienna who owns a bar, but people in town do not like her. A gang robbed the stage and killed Emma’s brother. Emma hates Vienna and wants revenge, and she tries to use a posse to get it.
Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden) sees explosions being used in mining and goes to Vienna’s for a drink. He says he has an appointment with Vienna (Joan Crawford). She says later and gives men orders. Mr. Andrews (Rhys Williams) asks her how she knew the railroad is coming through there. She sees men and a stage arrive and puts on her gun belt. They carry in the brother of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Emma says the Dancin’ Kid killed him, and Marshal Williams (Frank Ferguson) wants to arrest him. Vienna pulls out her gun and says Emma wants the Kid. Emma calls Vienna a tramp, and they tell her to leave. Vienna says the railroad is bringing people, but John McIvers (Ward Bond) says she will not build a depot there. Emma says she will kill Vienna. Shots are heard, and the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) comes in with rowdy men. Johnny asks him for a smoke. Vienna hired him to play guitar and tells him not to insult her customers. Johnny plays guitar, and the Kid dances with Emma. The Marshal asks the Kid where they were. Jenks says four men held up his stage. Johnny says he saw the hold-up from a mountain. McIvers says he will close that place down in 24 hours. The Marshal, McIvers, and Emma leave. Vienna hires Mr. Guitar, and the Kid quarrels with him. Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine) gives Johnny three drinks and orders him to drink more. They go outside to fight without their guns. Vienna advises the Kid to ride out of there. Johnny beats Bart, who is carried off. Young Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) tells Vienna he will look out for her and shows off his shooting, but Johnny shoots the gun out of his hand. Vienna calls Turkey a boy, and he leaves. Vienna says Johnny is still gun crazy and that he has not changed in five years. He says he loved her and hoped she was waiting for him. She says she loved a man five years ago, but he could not be tied down to a home. She says her fire burned out.
Bart, the Kid, Turkey, and Corey (Royal Dano) ride to an isolated cabin. The Kid suggests they go to California, and they plan a robbery.
Vienna finds Johnny up late drinking by the fire. He asks her to lie to him, that she still loves him. She says she had a hard time too and searched for him. He suggests they could get married, and they kiss. In the morning they go to town in a buggy. The bank is closed for Small’s funeral, but Vienna insists on withdrawing her money. Turkey arrives and initiates a robbery with the Kid, Bart, and Corey. Vienna tells the Kid to leave, and they will forget it; but they take the money before they go. Vienna and Johnny go back home. She says she tried to stop the Kid, but Johnny says it does not look good. Johnny says they have to get out, but she wants to go home.
The Kid says they will ride together. At the bank Emma says they took it all. The teller says Vienna tried to stop them, but Emma insists Vienna was with them. Emma says she is riding with the Marshal, McIvers, and the other men. Vienna and Johnny see explosions, and Johnny says they are closing the pass. He says a posse is like an animal. He suggests he could kill some of them, but she does not want any killing and fires him. The four robbers are stopped by the explosions, and Turkey is injured. The Kid says they are going back to the lair.
At her bar Vienna gives an equal share to her three employees to last for six months. They leave, and she gives Johnny money too; but he leaves it on the bar. Turkey hits a branch and falls off his horse. The other three realize Turkey is missing; but the posse is coming. Bart and Corey persuade the Kid to go to the lair.
Emma suggests the posse go to Vienna’s. McIvers says his men are not mad yet. Lou knows the country and leads the search. After a while the posse is ready to go to Vienna’s, and Emma says she was right about Vienna.
Tom (John Carradine) comes back with injured Turkey, but Vienna says she can’t keep him there. The posse is arriving, and Turkey asks her to help him. The posse comes in and searches while Vienna plays the piano. The Marshal tells Vienna they came for her too, but she says she is innocent. Emma says Vienna knows how to get to the Kid’s lair. Vienna calls them hypocrites, and they find Turkey. Emma says he will go free if he says Vienna was with them. Tom says he is lying, and men beat up Tom. McIvers agrees to hang them both, but the Marshal pulls his gun and says he is taking them to town. Tom has a gun and says they will not take Vienna. They shoot Tom, and he dies in Vienna’s arms. They take Vienna and Turkey outside. Emma shoots the chandelier down, starting a big fire that consumes the building. Turkey says they promised him he wouldn’t die, but they hang him. Emma wants to hang Vienna and offers $100. The men refuse. Vienna says she will have to do it herself. Emma whips the horse, but Johnny cuts the rope and helps Vienna escape. Vienna’s white dress catches on fire, and Johnny puts it out. They hide in a mine, and Vienna gets dressed. They leave the mine and hide on the mountain.
In the morning Vienna and Johnny cross a river and see Turkey’s horse. They go to the lair. Vienna tells the Kid and Bart that Johnny saved her life and that Turkey was hanged. Bart goes to relieve Corey watching. The Kid is jealous of Johnny. Vienna tells the Kid that he is Johnny Logan, the gun-slinger.
Turkey’s horse leads the posse to the lair. Emma tells Bart not to shoot, and he tells her to come in alone. The Kid asks Johnny and Vienna about the hanging. The Kid tells Bart about Johnny Logan. Bart tells Corey about Emma and wants to turn over Vienna. Corey disagrees, and Bart kills him with a knife in the back. Johnny finds Corey dead, and Bart takes the money. Johnny keeps Bart from shooting the Kid by jumping him. Bart shoots at Johnny, who shoots Bart dead. The posse finds Bart. Emma shoots at Vienna but misses. McIvers tells his men not to shoot. Emma tries to sneak up on Vienna and shoots at her. Emma shoots the Kid in the head, and Vienna kills Emma. Vienna throws her gun down. Johnny helps her walk away, and they kiss.
This western portrays two women who are even more hostile and violent than most of the men. Vienna is ambitious in business and tries to keep Johnny from killing, but Emma is relentless in her desire to kill Vienna. The result of these hostile and aggessive attitudes and actions is much futile violence.