26 April 2013

A Man Is as Big as What Makes Him Mad: Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by John Sturges. Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande.

Our wide image starts with a split between the modern world and the Old West: Fabulous vistas of a Southwestern desert sprawled over the screen in CinemaScope and Technicolor glory. Running through the brush and sand is an icon of the frontier: the railroad. But no black iron locomotive belching a smoke banner rides these rails. It’s a high-speed silver-and-orange streamliner offering every comfort to its riders blazing through this wasteland to get from one glistening city to the other.

Yet this train of the New Twentieth stops at Black Rock, Arizona, a town rusted in place in the Old Nineteenth. The streamliner hasn’t stopped at Black Rock in four years, and the town looks like it hasn’t touched the rest of the nation for far longer than that. Black Rock may have telephones, electric power, and cars, but it’s as rough as any frontier town from the 1880s and about as far distant from what civilization calls law and order. The single hotel advertises “Steam Heat” on the glass of the lobby window, but none of the buildings look like they’ve gotten refurbished since the invention of barbed wire. Even the sheriff’s office is a one-room hovel made of stone with a single jail cell of iron bars.

A lone figure steps off the streamliner, but he isn’t wearing a Stetson and boots. No gun belt hangs around his hips. He has on a plain black suit and tie, and his hat is a city-slicker fedora. Only the color of the fabric indicates that this fellow, played by Spencer Tracy, might be a classic avenging Western hero. Otherwise, he could be any twentieth-century businessman who got off at the wrong stop.

However, this Man in Black has come to the right place, and soon it’s going to be a bad day at Black Rock for those who still believe the lawlessness of the Old West will let them get away with murder, and that the racist values of the frontier still have a place in the contemporary world.

But it’s going to be a great day at Black Rock for the viewers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is my favorite entry in the Western subgenre called the “contemporary Western” or “modern Western.” These are films with Western settings and themes, similar styles of action and characters, but which take place post-World War I (or post-Mexican Revolution, a conflict at the center of the “Zapata Western” subgenre). The tension between traditional Western ideas and situations within the technological era makes these movies some of the more fascinating dips into the American West ever put on celluloid—and the time period does not negate them as Westerns. According to film historian Dana Polan on the commentary for the DVD of Bad Day at Black Rock, these films ask what happens to the mythologies of the Western as it enters the modern age.
The contemporary Western includes such diverse films as Brokeback Mountain, The Electric Cowboy, No Country for Old Men, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Comes a Horseman, Hearts of the West, and Sunset. Might as well toss the near-future science fiction of Westworld onto the pile: it has the Western figuratively taking revenge on modern-day joyriders who want to reduce it to their macho wish-fulfillment tool. (With last month’s release of the Blu-ray of Westworld, I’m overdue to write at noxious length about the numerous layers in that speciously simple film.)

The moment you try to define a subgenre, you run into problems. I favor the simplicity of the term “contemporary Western,” but it’s a bit misleading. Often these movies don’t take place in the same time period in which they were made. Comes a Horseman was released in 1978, but takes place in the 1940s; No Country for Old Men was released in 2007 but takes place in the early 1980s. This applies to Bad Day at Black Rock, although only by a few years: released in 1954, but set a few months after the end of World War II.

The movie was adapted from Howard Breslin’s short story “Bad Time at Honda,” which was first published in January 1947 in The American Magazine. In the director’s chair is John Sturges, who made a name for himself as one of the foremost directors of tough guy thrillers in the 1950s and ‘60s, including two ultra-classic Westerns: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven. Sturges’s films could often get bloated in their running times, but Bad Day at Black Rock hits straight and fast. It’s one of Sturges’s finest films, packing in a remarkable amount of high-tension drama and social commentary in less than an hour and a half.

The one-armed man in his off-the-rack black suit (literally: Spencer Tracy raided the rack himself) who steps off the streamliner is veteran John J. Macreedy. He’s come to Black Rock to go to a place called Adobe Flat. The entire town is instantly on pins and needles around him. “[You] act like you’re sitting on a keg… diamond, gunpowder,” the newcomer observes. Macreedy expects to find a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko at Adobe Flat. Komoko’s son Joe saved Macreedy’s life in Italy during the war, and died doing it; Macreedy has come to give the boy’s medal of honor to his father. As Macreedy’s goal becomes clearer—and people start hearing the name “Komoko”—Black Rock gets even jumpier. The town Black Rock is sitting on a dark secret, and ranch-owner and informal town warlord Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his cronies Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin) are prepped to kill to keep it secret.

Stop and think consider that: the villain’s support crew consists of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. Neither actor had their star-making breakout film when Bad Day at Black Rock was shot. Borgnine burst into fame with Marty released that same year, and Marvin’s career had a more gradual build until he won the Oscar for Cat Ballou in 1965 and followed it up with The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen. Both actors are operating in supporting roles here but have the full force of their personas and A-game backing them. Borgnine plays a tactless gorilla with fake brawn and no brain, and Marvin is smooth and arrogant as a character who always addresses Macreedy as “boy.”
When Reno Smith finds out that Macreedy has gone looking for Komoko at Adobe Flat, he offers Macreedy a weak sauce story that Komoko came to the town in 1941, but then got shipped to a relocation center after the war started. But the nervy town and the disassembling sheriff, Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), have put Macreedy on alert that Komoko went nowhere except a shallow grave covered with flowers on lonely Adobe Flat—and he didn’t go quietly. It seems that not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Reno Smith and a few of his boys got a bit “Patriotic drunk” and wandered up to Adobe Flat.…

MGM’s president Nicholas Schenck recognized Bad Day at Black Rock’s message against xenophobia and opposed production of the film because it was “subversive.” Producer Dore Schary already had a history of films dealing with racism, which were known as “problem pictures” or “message pictures” at the time. Schary executive-produced Crossfire, a 1947 noir thriller where Robert Ryan also played a bigoted killer, in this case an anti-Semite. (Although Ryan’s performance there makes the character seem more like a psychopath than a standard bigot. It isn’t that he specifically hates Jews. He just wants an excuse to kill somebody. He’s a straightforward racist in Bad Day at Black Rock.)

Schary still got the film made, despite Schenck’s objections. And Schenck was right: Bad Day at Black Rock is subversive—and still is. The movie’s approach to xenophobia and racism is disturbingly prescient, and unfortunately has not dated in 2013. When Macreedy confronts Reno Smith about what really happened to Komoko, sliding into the conversation to raise Smith’s hackles in the right way, we get frighteningly familiar-sounding dialogue.
SMITH: I believe a man is as big as what will make him mad….

MACREEDY: What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?... The Japanese make you mad, don’t they?

SMITH: Well, that’s different. After that sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Bataan—

MACREEDY: Komoko made you mad?

SMITH: It’s the same thing. “Loyal Japanese-Americans.” That’s a laugh. They’re all mad dogs. What about Corregidor, the Death March?

MACREEDY: What did Komoko have to do with Corregidor?

SMITH: He was a Jap, wasn’t he? Look, Mr. Macreedy. There’s a law in this county about shooting dogs. But when I see a mad dog, I don’t wait for him to bite me. I swear you’re beginning to make me mad.

MACREEDY: All strangers do.
Swap out Japanese-Americans and World War II atrocities with Arab-Americans and 9/11, and this is a conversation I still hear and which always makes my faith in humanity waver. The Reno Smiths of the world are still around, irrationally hating whole groups of people for the crimes of a few and unable to see the blood-red irony of their own bigoted violence.

Reno Smith is right about one thing: a man is as big as what makes him mad. Bigotry and blind hatred make Macreedy mad, and that ends up making him far bigger than Smith and his gang of racists—and they pay for underestimating him.
Spencer Tracy’s performance emphasizes how easy it is for narrow-minded thugs like Coley and Hector to believe he’s a wimp and a pushover. Macreedy appears stoic, going out of his way to avoid trouble. Hector assumes the man is a coward with no “iron in his gut.” How tough could a man with only one arm actually be? But Tracy also exudes an underlying inflexibility in the early scenes, putting the audience on alert that he will eventually make his move and come down hard on the bullies of Black Rock.

The first explosion occurs in a spectacularly memorable and oh-so-satisfying fight with Coley at the local hash house, where Macreedy facilely beats Borgnine’s orcish jerk into unconsciousness using only one hand and not even breaking into more of a sweat than he already had from the heat. Appropriately, Macreedy uses judo—a nice message from Japanese-Americans delivered through the edge of his hand. The tears of racists are delicious.

Anne Francis, one of the underrated actresses of the decade, appears as Liz Wirth, sister of Pete Wirth (John Ericson) who runs Black Rock’s hotel. Liz is a strong woman but doesn’t rock the boat because “I have to go on living in this town.” She can’t leave because she won’t abandon her brother, and he’s too weak to uproot himself. But Liz turns out to be a surprise character; she isn’t a romantic interest for Macreedy as viewers might expect. There’s a hefty age gap between Tracy and Francis, but then Hollywood’s never had a problem tossing older male stars on-screen girlfriends far below the “half your age plus seven” rule. But Anne Francis’s role is unlike what people might expect from the top-billed woman in the cast.

Actually, Francis is the only woman in the cast, the only woman we ever see in Black Rock, which makes the town seem even more desolate. Black Rock not only lacks women, it seems to lack families of any kind; the only people who are related are brother and sister Liz and Pete. The town otherwise consists of only a dozen older men, furthering the sense that the place is a withering spot with values that mean nothing. When Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) talks about revitalizing Black Rock at the finale, you have to wonder how he intends to achieve it. Macreedy’s attitude of, “Sure, you go ahead and try that,” seems entirely justified.

Doc Velie serves as the conscience of the town, the decent moral man who finds the strength to do what’s right when Macreedy arrives, and who tries to kick the others to the better sides of their nature. Brennan gives a great performance that makes Doc Velie convincingly principled and yet impotent at the same time. Unlike the sheriff and Pete Wirth, who have good intentions but are cowards, Doc Velie is a fellow who could take a stand if there were any space for him to stand.

At a streamlined eighty-two minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock is a bit fast at the very end, and the only negative I can lob at the film is that John Sturges cuts the finale too lean and brings events to a close so quickly that it feels an important moment of satisfaction got left behind in the editing, making Reno Smith leap abruptly to the end of his character arc. The confrontation between Macreedy and Smith ends rapidly and without the same catharsis as the beating the hero handed out to Coley earlier.

Bad Day at Black Rock was made two years into the life of the CinemaScope widescreen format. MGM licensed the special lenses from Twentieth Century Fox to make the movie, although Sturges simultaneously shot the movie “flat” because the studio wasn’t sure about how it would turn out. A ridiculous concern: Bad Day at Black Rock looks phenomenal on the huge CinemaScope 2.55:1 canvas. (The 2.55:1 aspect ratio was the standard at the time, changing to 2.35:1 with the later addition of a magnetic track.) Look at the stunning composition of this shot, part of a simple expository dialogue scene:
The CinemaScope format also explodes during an early action sequence when a car tries to drive a Jeep off the road. Unlike other vehicle pursuits filmed in the pre-Bullitt era, most of this scene was shot with the cars going at actual speed without under-cranking the camera. But what makes it work so well is the enormous canvas capturing the baroque desert surroundings of the two vehicles. The widescreen space helps bring home the power of the location filming (done at Lone Pine, CA). This is why the Western loved CinemaScope, and changed the way viewers looked at the genre. The development of widescreen processes helped drive the Western to a level of mainstream, A-budget popularity that signed the walking papers of the “B” Western by the 1960s and another John Sturges Western, The Magnificent Seven.

This film is part of my “Great Western Challenge” list of essential movie Westerns. Give Bad Day a Black Rock a watch and in only eighty-two minutes you can bump up your score by a point.

The original theatrical trailer: