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Bad Day at Black Rock

by Glenn Erickson Dec 24, 2016

DVD SAVANT

Don’t mess with the one-armed man — did you know that at 56 years, Spencer Tracy could whup Ernest Borgnine to a frazzle? John Sturges knocked this one out of the ballpark and booted his career into high gear. It’s well remembered… but does anyone remember that the subject is the murder of a Japanese-American? It’s a combo social issue film AND a tough guy western.


Bad Day at Black Rock
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:40:1 widescreen / 81 min. / Street Date January 17, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande, Robert Griffin, Harry Harvey.
Cinematography
William C. Mellor
Film Editor Newell P. Kimlin
Original Music André Previn
Written by Millard Kaufman, Don McGuire story by Howard Breslin
Produced by Dore Schary
Directed by John Sturges

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Warning to readers: is a prime slice of 1950s Hollywood liberalism too ‘radical’ for you? Do you fear being caught watching dangerous propaganda? 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock has a great reputation as a straight thriller and is a winner from several angles — the cast, the screenplay and especially the direction by John Sturges, one of the brightest of the crop of young postwar directors. Liberal firebrand writer-producer Dore Schary had moved from RKO to MGM, where he bedeviled Louis B. Mayer and eventually won a grudge match for control of the lot. No longer the full-employment factory of the previous decade, the studio he inherited was barely able to operate. Schary pushed through a number of worthy projects before he himself was pushed out. In this so-called modern western the ‘mysterious stranger’ has come to town not to quell a range war, but to settle a ‘Japanese-American problem.’ Remember, in civilized 1950s liberal dramas, there’s always a social problem.

The story can’t be bettered — I know other literary sources are involved, but If Leone swiped Yojimbo to make A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa was surely influenced by Bad Day. The tiny desert town of Black Rock is alerted when the streamliner train drops off a lone passenger, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). Barely more than a cluster of shacks, the town nevertheless offers a hostile reception. The railroad office won’t send Macreedy’s telegrams, the sheriff (Dean Jagger) declines to answer questions, the hotel desk clerk Pete (John Ericson) tries to refuse him a room, and the local thugs Coley and Hector (Ernest Borgnine & Lee Marvin) are quick to push the stranger around, to provoke him into a fight. Young Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) is at first friendly, and then turns as mean as her neighbors. The mortician Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) tells Macreedy that his life is in danger, a warning that’s hardly necessary. Local big shot rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) goes to work on Macreedy right away. An unreported crime occurred in Black Rock a few years back. It’s obvious that almost everyone in town is implicated, and Macreedy already seems to know too much. He has no transportation and no weapons. He also has only one good arm, which leads Coley and Hector to make the mistake that he can’t defend himself.

Bad Day is a crisp, well-judged suspense item. In his black suit and hat, Spencer Tracy’s Macreedy might be Joe Wilson of Fritz Lang’s Fury, twenty years older, wounded in the war, and out for a different kind of justice. His apparent defenselessness is an illusion — he knows karate and judo. Robert Ryan was Dore Schary’s all-purpose racist/bigot back in Crossfire (1947). Ryan doesn’t need to stretch to play the crooked Reno. Right from the start the movie reminds us that we believe in Western Hospitality, but that we don’t want to see it in our movies. Seeing as how Black Rock seems to have become unstuck in time, the movie might as well be a western version of Brigadoon. In a way, that’s a pretty smart analogy for a ’50s thriller. The movie is saying that Black Rock is a microcosm, displaying America’s hatred for minorities and its penchant for lawless violence. If this is our society, we’re all guilty. Liberal dramas often ask us to acknowledge our guilt.

Ah, but this is still a liberal parable, so only a couple of the townspeople are genuine no-goods. The rest are weak-willed followers, that Macreedy can control in different ways. By being a good pacifist and not taking the bait of Coley and Hector’s insults, Macreedy keeps all of them off balance. Of course it helps that he’s a one-man fighting machine; Ernest Borgnine gets pummeled worse than he did in the previous year’s Johnny Guitar. Don’t worry Ernie, in about 14 months you’ll be grinning at the news cameras, hoisting your Oscar for Marty.

I would imagine that the opportunity to be in a Spencer Tracy movie made lining up a quality cast fairly easy. A rising name actor like Lee Marvin could benefit from the relatively small role — he gets Tracy to himself in a scene or two. Three actors were still under contract to MGM at the time. John Ericson’s contract would be cancelled when he refused to do Forbidden Planet. Francis would hang on for about a year more. Tracy continued to star in Jeremy Rodock (retitled Tribute to a Bad Man), only to be fired for bad behavior, bringing his MGM contract to an end.

Is it safe to say that director John Sturges is the key to Bad Day at Black Rock’s success? Sturges was reliable and creative, but he also had an indispensible quality for the 1950s – an ability to tame difficult stars. Sturges and Tracy had gotten along well on The People Against O’Hara. Warners would bring him back two years later to ride herd on the still-difficult Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea.

Even better for Sturges’ career, Bad Day saw him praised as an artistic director who had ‘solved’ the problem of compositions in CinemaScope. Fox’s early C’Scope pictures either spread characters across the screen like butter, or shot them straight on with big expanses of nothing left and right. Two shots often placed a lamp in the middle of the frame; when pan-scanned for TV, the shot would mostly be about the lamp. Cinematographers were fearful of getting too close because of the CinemaScope mumps problem. Elia Kazan was experimenting with odd camera angles in East of Eden, and attacking the awkward widescreen format by breaking the screen up into blocks of space. A hallway might become a tunnel-like area inside the frame.

John Sturges uses a forward-looking title sequence that’s all tight shots of a speeding train, a ribbon of red that fits the ‘scope frame well. Using the simple geography of the town — just a street and a railroad crossing – Sturges’s compositions establish distances and scale relationships: Macreedy must walk from the jail to the telegraph office to the diner to the hotel, and when he does we understand what it’s like to be stuck in such a confined, unpleasant place. Rather than plant the main character screen center against a blurry background, Sturges stresses context. The exterior of Ann Francis’s gas station poses Tracy in a chair with Robert Ryan amid the gas pumps, and a jeep. Then end of the dusty row of buildings is visible in the background. We know we’re at the opposite end of town from the railroad tracks.

More than one reviewer remarked on Sturges’ blocking in one scene, which really adapts a stage setup to the wide frame. (large picture, top).  Robert Ryan stops right on the railroad crossing to vent his frustration and formulate a plan. Most of the rest of the cast walk up to comment or just listen. In some ’40s picture they’d all be in a tight cluster, but Sturges splits them up, all facing Ryan but standing at different distances away, perhaps representing their relative solidarity with him. Borgnine’s Coley is eager to do some killing, so moves in close. The insolent Hector stands a few feet away. Walter Brennan’s doc is just close enough to hear, and express his usual discontent. Sturges’ camera cuts from one side to the other, and the men’s positions in the frame pop back and forth. But we have no trouble keeping our bearings, as the railroad still only goes one way. He doesn’t cross the 180-degree line. Sturges’ take on male groups is different than that of Howard Hawks, who would jam a dozen bad-smelling cowboys or trappers into the frame standing shoulder to shoulder, before the advent of deodorant. Sturges knows these villains don’t even like each other, that they’re just a pack of misfits and malcontents who’ve gravitated to this anus in the middle of the desert. Each is an independent satellite to the Alpha Male goon in the middle.

We thought Spencer Tracy’s karate workout was great when we were kids. An expert watching the show with me said that if the first throat chop were done well, Borgnine would be out for the count. One fight detail shows Tracy chopping Borgnine in the lower back, almost on the tailbone, and knocking him forward in pain. The tailbone is not a vulnerable spot, quite the opposite, so maybe the chop was supposed to hit the kidneys? The strange shoot-out maneuver at the finish isn’t quite as silly as Nicholas Ray’s demise for Lee J. Cobb in Party Girl, but it does come close. (spoiler) Ryan has Tracy in his rifle sights and misses a shot or two. Instead of just closing on the unarmed man right away, Ryan decides to climb down on a roundabout path, giving Tracy time to play McGuyver and improvise a weapon. If Bad Day at Black Rock were made today, it would be more like a Die Hard movie … 2.5 hours instead of 81 brisk minutes, with frequent violence that would end with the town exploding or the train derailing. I like the drama/action quotient the way it is.

As are many liberal issues movies, Bad Day at Black Rock is a bit too simplistic and unrealistic about the social evils of the ’50s. In reality, lynch mobs and other perpetrators of American lawlessness have a strong record of sticking together under stress. Macreedy finds it easy to peel away Reno Smith’s lackeys, starting with Pete in the hotel. Doc Velie is ready to rebel before Macreedy arrives, and he’s the one who goads the drunken sheriff into taking action. And I have to say that although Robert Ryan is good, his character is not particularly compelling. Reno Smith looks strong but is soon revealed to be something of a nutcase, practically foaming with hatred as he confesses his crime. Bad Day makes it seem that this bedrock American Evil can only be found in isolated little places like Black Rock, and is easy to root out. The truth is that the hatred is so widespread and ingrained that it’s almost un-dramatic, banal.

I like the values and moral lessons of Bad Day. But the liberal playbook has weaknesses. First, at the finish we’re told that the town can now heal. What’s left of Black Rock to heal? We didn’t understand why it needed a sheriff and a jail, or a telegraph office for a train that doesn’t stop (okay, maybe the freight trains do). Plenty of towns like Black Rock are out in the Mojave Desert, and they’re usually just a gas station and an auto junkyard. Road workers, mining people and the California Highway Patrol pass through, and that’s it. A real ranch out in the high Mojave Desert? With cows? That’s news to me.

The last problem is typical of liberal pictures about minorities. The movie was heralded as championing the plight of Japanese-Americans in WW2… yet we don’t see any. We never see Komoko, father or son. The film has no Japanese presence whatsoever, not even a photo. Dore Schary made a patriotic film about Nisei paratroops, called Go for Broke! (1951). It has a dozen or so speaking roles for Japanese-Americans.

If the movie specifically mentions an internment roundup, I missed it. The farmer Komoko didn’t live long enough to be interned, but you can bet that that F.B.I. would have come looking for him. After the war, so would any other relatives recently released from an internment camp. Does Bad Day infer that an F.B.I. investigator accepted Reno Smith’s miserable explanation why a farmer would abandon a spread after the miracle of finding water in the Mojave? The movie is not really about Japanese-Americans, but about White Guilt. And if you just stick to the actual audience take-away, it’s really just about a tough guy who takes on a bunch of thugs in a bad town.

Info help from the generous Dick Dinman.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Bad Day at Black Rock is a big leap forward for this picture. “Why, I can remember” when it came out on an old Criterion laserdisc, in a ribbon-like SD transfer where it was possible to distinguish most of the actors in a long shot. Bad Day looks okay on DVD but this razor- sharp, accurately colored scan is just great. The wide, wide vistas must have impressed folk back in ’55, and the colors pop as they would in a Technicolor print, especially the red on that fancy passenger train. I didn’t notice any CinemaScope mumps, and John Sturges’ staging and compositions are so good that we don’t miss the lack of close-ups. The visual field is not flat, however. William Mellor’s camera crew adjust the screwy C’Scope lens as best they can, and panning shots still look like they’re shot through wavy glass. People do not appear to shrink or stretch out at the extremes of the frame, however.

The IMDB says the AR should be 2.55:1 and the packaging says 2:40; my instinct tells me that the WAC is probably correct. Perhaps the negative was adapted to that squeeze ratio at some point. It looks plenty wide to me. Bad Day is also listed as having a 4-track stereo mix, while the disc only carries two channel stereo. This again may be a case of misinformation — MGM retained most audio elements for its films.

In addition to a theatrical trailer, a good commentary is on board from Dana Polan of USC. The approach is story and theme analysis, not production history beyond identifying the stars. Polan thinks that there are enough clues for us to guess that Macreedy was in intelligence during the war, which is where he could have learned that fancy fighting. It’s not that likely that his young friend Komoko, an Nisei, would have been a martial arts expert.

John Sturges made films that are more accomplished, but this winner shows a director really breaking out of the pack and making a name for himself. Every picture from here forward would be major production.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bad Day at Black Rock Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent 2.0 stereo
Supplements: commentary by Dana Polan, original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 23, 2016
(5292rock)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.