Classics Through the Cracks: Bad Day at Black Rock, by Bob Connally

14 Mar

Citizen Kane. Casablanca. Lawrence of Arabia. Dr. Strangelove. Films considered by virtually all movie buffs to be amongst the greatest ever made. Classics. But there are so many wonderful movies that for one reason or another have fallen through the cracks and don’t get the recognition they truly deserve. In this new series I will be writing about and hopefully encouraging people to discover the classics that they’ve been missing. Movies like Real Life, Hud, and L.A. Story just to name a few. I’ll be looking at the film, the era in which it was released, and other popular movies released in that era. For my second entry in this series I’m writing about a film that balances multiple genres while addressing racism in a far more thoughtful and nuanced way than many movies which address it today. From 1955, Bad Day at Black Rock.

In its opening shots, Bad Day at Black Rock introduces us to a speeding locomotive roaring through a desert. It is a simple but incredibly effective way to get the audience’s attention while indicating that this is a movie that will waste no time. Quickly, this opening credits sequence gives way to the sights of the small western town of Black Rock. There are seemingly few residents, none of whom appear to have done much for a long time other than to sit outside and peer into the desert. Even before a character explicitly states it on screen it’s clear from the reactions of the townspeople that the train hasn’t stopped in Black Rock for years. Despite not cutting an imposing figure, the man who steps off the train, Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) fills the citizens of this town with trepidation.

For reasons that are as unclear to Macreedy as they are to us, the people of Black Rock are cold and inhospitable towards him. Despite it being an obvious lie, the young hotel desk clerk named Pete (John Ericson) claims that there are no rooms available. “It’s 1945, mister. There’s been a war on.” Undeterred, Macreedy simply takes the keys to a room and heads upstairs only to be confronted by a cowboy named Hector (Lee Marvin), who claims that the room is his, attempting to see if Macreedy will lose his cool.

Meanwhile, a few worried townspeople speculate about what Macreedy may be there to do. Only Black Rock’s undertaker, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) seems unconcerned or willing to help Macreedy at all. As Macreedy sets out to take care of his mysterious business, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) pulls up in his car outside the hotel, a freshly shot deer carcass strapped to the hood. Alongside him is one of his muscle men, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine).

S mith commands the room the moment he sets foot into the hotel lobby. Pete practically quakes when he shows “Mr. Smith” the hotel register. He tells the skittish Coley to sit down as though he’s a teacher addressing a student who won’t stay still, before nonchalantly threatening Doc that he’ll, “have Coley wash [his] mouth out with lye.” When Smith orders to have a telegram sent to a private detective in Los Angeles to find out everything there is to know about Macreedy he adds, “I drive to L.A. now and then,” as though that’s an impressive fact. To the other men in that room though, it is which subtly suggests to the audience that Smith is the only person in Black Rock who may come and go as he pleases. It also suggests that Smith wants to subtly remind the other characters that that is the case.

Up the street Macreedy questions the town drunkard who also happens to be the sheriff (Dean Jagger). The fact that Macreedy at first mistakes Sheriff Horn for an inmate is another signal to us that something is very wrong in this little southwest town. It is at this point that Macreedy reveals that he is in Black Rock to find a man named Komoko. He doesn’t elaborate on the reasons why but the mere mention of the name is enough to make Horn jump. It’s become clear to Macreedy that if he wants to find Komoko he’ll have to do it alone.

Based upon the 1947 short story Bad Time at Honda by Howard Breslin, Bad Day at Black Rock was written by Millard Kaufman (one of the creators of Mr. Magoo oddly enough) and directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Running just 82 minutes (about a half hour shorter than the average running time for that era) this is a film that doesn’t reveal vital pieces of information to its audience until absolutely necessary for optimal effect. Simply as a lesson in pacing, it is essential viewing for anyone who wants to be a filmmaker. The old overused saying about a movie having “no fat on it” truly does apply here.

Sturges uses all 82 minutes astonishingly well especially considering the balance of genres, the themes the film explores, and the depths of its characters. Backstory is necessary here to understand each character’s part in the overall story but we are not given any more than we need. It’s occurred to me watching Bad Day at Black Rock that were it to be made today it would have featured an extra 20 to 30 minutes of flashbacks detailing Macreedy’s time in the war and the incident which turned Black Rock into the town we see at the film’s beginning. The rule in drama is, “Show, don’t tell,” and while Bad Day at Black Rock tells us about the momentous events that have set things in action, it is still adhering to the rule. What the film shows us is how each character tries to deal with what he or she did- or in the cases of Doc and Sheriff Horn didn’t do- internally and what internalizing that has meant for each person and for the way they relate to one another.

Something else that would undoubtedly be considerably different today is the casting of Macreedy. Spencer Tracy was 54 at the time of filming Bad Day at Black Rock and looked older than that. He was also about average height and build (though he is referred to in this film as, “a big man”) and the character of Macreedy suffered an injury during World War II that left him without the use of one of his arms. As such his desire to avoid a fight and to finally flee Black Rock after Coley attempts to kill him makes complete sense. His transparent fear as his attempts to leave are thwarted either by circumstances or by Hector fills the audience with anxiety. It gives the scene in which Macreedy goes to the local diner simply because he has nowhere else to go a palpable intensity. Pushed and humiliated by Coley while Smith, Hector, and an assortment of other Black Rock citizens silently look on, Macreedy just smiles and allows himself to be pushed. He is all but literally turning the other cheek as Coley gleefully intimidates him. Macreedy will not raise the one good arm he has in anger until the moment when he absolutely has to. When he does it’s as much of a shock to the audience as it is to Coley. Like everything else about the movie, Macreedy exercises an economy of movement in this most unexpected of beat downs.

Were this film to be made now Macreedy probably would have been played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a man of action who’s in Black Rock to pummel everyone who gets in his way, missing the point of the character entirely in the interest of having more and considerably more elaborate fight scenes.

Each of the action sequences in Bad Day at Black Rock is born out of the story and characters rather than existing for its own sake. They are scenes that raise the stakes, reveal key things about characters, and serve as punctuation for what has been building up.

Bad Day at Black Rock blends elements of the western and the paranoid thriller- two of the more popular genres of the time- to tell a story about morality. Through Smith and his gang of thugs we see the mob mentality of those who viewed Americans of Japanese descent as being the enemy. Doc and Horn exemplify what happens when good men do nothing, Horn lamenting not doing his job as sheriff four years earlier in regards to Komoko and Doc trying to excuse his inaction with, “I live a quiet, contemplative life.”

As the outsider, Macreedy recognizes Black Rock for what it has become. “The rule of law has left here and the gorillas have taken over.” While most in town wish Macreedy had never arrived and can’t wait for him to leave, Doc recognizes that Macreedy’s presence in Black Rock could ultimately be the best thing for it. He’s the one person who sees an opportunity for redemption and for the revitalization of Black Rock’s soul.

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars. Kaufman for Screenplay, Sturges for Director, and Tracy for Best Actor. It would go on to lose in all three categories to Marty. Funnily enough, Tracy lost to his co-star in this film Ernest Borgnine for his role as a man as soft-hearted as Coley is mean. The Academy’s preference for Marty feels consistent for them when you think about it. Marty was a human drama with its writing and acting front and center while Bad Day at Black Rock may have been somewhat dismissed as a genre film. Good enough to nominate but not something Academy voters could bring themselves to ultimately vote for.

63 years after its release Bad Day at Black Rock feels of its era in all the right ways and without feeling dated. While being as entertaining and engrossing as one could hope for from any movie, it makes us question how we would handle the situation as a citizen of Black Rock. The moral questions at its heart never lose their relevance.

Instead of giving a quick rundown of a companion film I’ll just say that my next entry in this series will also be set in the dying west of the mid-20th century. From 1963, Hud.

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