Bad Day At Black Rock
dir. John Sturges
scr. Millard Kaufman
adaptation by Don McGuire
based on a story by Howard Breslin
Commissioned by Dwayne Allen
I love movies that start with trains rolling into town.
We all have those things about movies that are automatic buy-ins. I know my list is very weird and specific, and I don’t care. It’s my list. I like doctors who smoke in hospitals. I like it when a movie is set in a year that was in the future when the film was made, but it’s in the past now. I like it when people mispronounce the word “robot” as “ro-bitt.” If you have a movie that is narrated by a smoking doctor and opens with “The year is 1994, and the ro-bitts have conquered Earth,” then I am in.
And, yeah, I like it when trains roll into town to open a film. Maybe that comes from my first exposure to Once Upon A Time In The West. I saw just the opening scene of that film when I was very, very young, before I could consciously understand it, and it stuck in there somewhere. When I finally saw it again, it was the recognition of it that shocked me so much. I remembered it, and it was like this weird chemical reaction for me. I remembered the way Leone had stretched anticipation to the breaking point, turning it into an exercise, seeing how far he could push the audience before giving them one explosive moment of reckoning.
Another fetish for me is super-widescreen photography from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s something about the way directors started to explore that super-wide frame and the color on the film stock from those decades that just drives me into an aesthetic frenzy. This is one of the films that helped define just how exciting that use of the widescreen could be, and it’s impressive to see how fully-formed the visual language is here, how impressively it’s used to create a town that is sealed in by distant mountains even as it lays exposed on the flat, featureless anvil where it stands.
This is all preamble to me saying that Bad Day At Black Rock is a film that feels like it is aimed directly at all of my pleasure centers, and I do not return to it nearly often enough. Part of the problem is that John Sturges isn’t really considered part of the canon, and I often neglect his work, even though much of it is important to me and central to the way my love of movies developed in the first place. And in Bad Day At Black Rock, he’s created one of the ultimate games in seeing how long he can tease out a reveal, an exercise in anticipation and dread, built around one of the great movie star performances of the ‘50s.
That first shot of the train, from high above the desert, as it cuts across miles and miles of nothing with the opening power chords of that André Previn score… man, that’s the good stuff. The second shot, we race towards the train, along the tracks, directly facing it, and then lift up so it races under us just as SPENCER TRACY fills the screen. It’s the kind of opening that feels like the filmmakers grabbed you by the shirt and they’re just shaking you. “ARE YOU AWAKE? WE’RE STARTING NOW!” I love it. I think there’s this weird religion of “reality” in movies, where people love movies because of the “realism,” and I am not sure I understand the point of that. The entire title sequence is cut like you’re being slapped. Just WHAM! Here’s Robert Ryan’s name! WHAM! Anne Francis is in it, too! Every cut is a new angle on the train, and it feels like it’s going 1000 miles an hour. It’s all so goddamn urgent, which makes sense. The film runs a grand total of 81 minutes, and not a single one of them is wasted.
I’ll be honest. Bad Day At Black Rock wasn’t an instant favorite for me the first time I saw it. Like several of the other films that were commissioned in this first round of reviews for Pull The Strings, this was featured in the Danny Peary Cult Movies books, and it’s interesting how that worked out. If you’re someone who reads about movies for fun, you’ve probably stumbled across Peary in one form or another. Peary loves this movie, and his love for it is what got me to try it in the first place. This was an early Criterion laserdisc title, and that’s how I watched it. At that point, I was 21, 22 years old, and Spencer Tracy bugged me. I didn’t get him at all. He was a lumpy old man, and my entire life as a filmgoer, that had been my impression of him. Even when he was young, he was an old man. There are certain actors who are like that. Ed Asner. Wilford Brimley. They were born at the age of 50, and they just kept getting older from there. Now that I’m older, I’m fond of Tracy, whose acting style seemed more suited to the heightened naturalism of the ‘50s. That curmudgeonly persona is exactly what I dig about him, something I didn’t get when I was in my early 20s. The pleasures of a film like this were not the pleasures I was chasing at that point.
So the train pulls into Black Rock, and we get our first look at the “town.” It’s not even that. It’s a casual agreement of buildings at what appears to be a random spot in the middle of nowhere. The conductor of the train can barely slow it down long enough to toss Spencer Tracy out with a warning.
“I’ll only be here 24 hours.”
“In a place like this, that could be a lifetime.”
And what kind of place is this, exactly? It’s the kind that pushes back as soon as Spencer Tracy steps off of that train. He’s met by a belligerent telegraph worker, upset that no one told him the train would be stopping. It’s the first time the train’s stopped there in four years, so that’s the kind of place it is. Tracy mentions that he wants to go someplace called Adobe Flats, and that’s it. We’re off and running. Clearly, he’s got a secret, and clearly, so does the entire town. Everyone watches him walk towards the hotel, not even trying to hide their interest. He hasn’t even reached the door before people are on the phones, calling ahead to talk about him.
Watch him try to check into the only hotel in town. The guy at the front desk can’t even figure out how to lie to him effectively. It’s so obvious from frame one that something’s wrong, and that Tracy is there to expose it, that it stops being a mystery and we feel immediately like we’re watching a sporting event. And despite his one working arm, something the film introduces in a very subtle manner, Tracy appears to be the one who wades in with fists flying. Metaphorically, of course. He just refuses to hear the word “no.” He checks himself in while staring the front desk guy in the eye, daring him to do something about it. And then his first exchange with Heck David (Lee Marvin), who sits in the lobby staring at him as he registers, is an all-timer.
“I don’t know why you’re so interested, but the name’s MacReedy.
It’s right there in the register.”
“You look like you could use a hand.”
I love Tracy’s moment where you can see him register the insult, debate how he should handle this shitkicker, and then roll right on up the stairs, smile on his face because he can already tell that this town is going to do it the hard way. What I like about the storytelling here is that you get a sense of who MacReedy is from the way he responds to the very clear threats being made. I mean, if Young Lee Marvin decided to rattle me, I would be rattled. This is someone you have to carefully consider. Young Lee Marvin is like a goddamn rattlesnake. You know he’s dangerous. You know someone’s going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of when.
Tracy just starts… poking. He wants a car so he can drive out to Adobe Flats. He decides to walk down to the jail. Every new beat is iconic. And the dialogue is just terrific.
“Nobody asked you here.”
“How do you know?”
I love the open antagonism. This is the first time he says the name Komoko. And the reaction from everyone who hears that name makes it clear that something awful happened in the town, and enough people have blood on their hands that MacReedy is wading in dangerous water. Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger) is weak and dented from the start, and he’s got no shame at all. He starts drinking as soon as he opens his eyes, right in front of MacReedy. And when MacReedy drops that name on the desk like it’s a blood-covered murder weapon from a covered-up crime, Horn almost knocks over his bottle of cheap rotgut, only to have MacReedy reach out, lightning-quick, to save it.
“Almost a disaster.”
“A fate worse than death. You move fast for a crip… for a big man.”
The name stops things cold. Horn throws him out, and MacReedy’s back on that one street, his audience settling in to watch him as Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) steps up to try to head things off. Smith’s the one really running things. That’s obvious the moment he makes his first appearance, a dead buck strapped to the front of his car. He runs the biggest ranch in the area, and he’s the one who employs Heck and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), the most obvious muscle in town. Reno tries talking to him, tries reasoning with him, and then MacReedy rents a jeep from Liz (Anne Francis) and he’s off and running, leaving Reno to lay the problem out for everyone else. They have an informal town meeting, right there in the streets.
“This guy’s like a carrier of smallpox. Since he’s arrived, this town’s had a fever, an infection, and it’s spreading.”
The difference between rear-projection and actual location photography has never been clearer than it is during a terrific scene where MacReedy’s driving out to the area he’s investigating as Trimble terrorizes him with his car. The location stuff is amazing, and then the projection shots are… not. I get the reason for it, and William C. Mellor was an amazing photographer, one of the titans of the studio era. Look at a film like Giant or The Diary of Anne Frank or A Place In The Sun or The Naked Spur. This guy had an amazing eye, and he made his collaborators look great, and his work always served the film. To me, that’s the mark of a really great photographer. It’s not about them having a style you notice; it’s about telling the story with every possible tool.
When MacReedy shows back up, it’s clear something has changed. Being run off the road has made it clear that they aren’t going to let him push this investigation any further. He seems to have been cowed and beaten. He plays along with Borgnine’s version of events, agrees that he was the problem on the road. He tells everyone he’s leaving. He tries to catch an earlier train out than the one he originally intended. But when he walks back down to the garage, he manages to get Liz talking, and he finally starts to make some headway. But under all of it, it’s clear that he knows that he’s going to die in Black Rock, and there’s not a goddamn thing he can do about it.
It’s clear that Black Rock is America, no matter what MacReedy says. He says it’s not representational of the country at large, but it is uncomfortably close to the way we’re living now. “The gorillas have taken over,” he says at one point, challenging Liz as she keeps pretending there’s nothing wrong with the people in her town. She runs off with the Jeep, making sure he’s stranded, and then Smith shows up, ready to lay down the law.
“I believe a man is as big as what he’s seeking.
I believe you’re a big man, Mr. MacReedy.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Why would a man like you be looking for a lousy Jap farmer?”
“Ehhh… I’m not so big.”
“Sure. I believe a man is as big as what’ll make him mad.
Nobody around here seems big enough to make you mad.”
“What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?”
“Oh, you’re a pretty big man yourself.”
The scene that unfolds between Ryan and Tracy at the gas station is the heart of the film, and it’s one of the greatest scenes either of those guys ever got to play. It lays out one of the hardest corners of the American heart, the part that wants to find a piece of land, dig in, and never let anything change again. It’s part of the individualism that defines our country, and it’s part of the xenophobia that has been a recurrent theme, era after era, shifting the focus of the fear from one group of outsiders to the next.
Then that scene is followed by another all-timer, as Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) does his best to play it straight with MacReedy. He even offers him a way to try and run for it. Brennan could easily tip into caricature as an actor, but he’s wonderful here, and when his car won’t start and MacReedy realizes how trapped he is, it’s heartbreaking.
“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”
Ernest Borgnine is one of those guys who I think of as his off-screen persona, amiable and approachable and down to earth, so watching him play a vicious piece of shit here is a little disorienting. When he finally pushes MacReedy to violence, it’s shocking, and Trimble definitely doesn’t see it coming. He earns it, though, and MacReedy puts a hurt on him fast, and he makes it stick. The fact that it’s one-handed makes it humiliating, too, and it announces to everyone else that MacReedy isn’t the soft old man he appears to be at first glance.
If the only thing you want from the film is that constant ratcheting of tension, it’s a masterpiece, but the reason Bad Day at Black Rock is worth re-examination, now more than ever, is because it is one of the few pieces of mainstream entertainment to ever even grapple with the weight of what we did to the Japanese-American population during WWII. We don’t talk about it in our pop culture because we are not good as a country at dealing with shame. It’s one thing to make a huge national mistake. It’s another thing to make it, then avoid ever processing it. After WWII, Germany was forced into a position where they had to grapple with what they’d done, and that national reckoning is an important part of processing things that have happened. In America, we learn to push things down and never deal with them, and it’s one of the reasons we’re so deeply crazy as a nation these days. We can’t deal with the history of slavery. We can’t deal with what we did to Japanese-Americans in WWII. And Bad Day At Black Rock knows that the poison we leave in the wound is the poison that eventually kills us.
“Well, isn’t that noble? You haven’t forgotten and you’re ashamed.”
The secret of what happened to Komoko isn’t the film’s best reveal. Instead, it’s the reveal of why MacReedy cares in the first place that finally makes sense of things. Smith was the one who led the others to kill Komoko, swollen with fury over Pearl Harbor and his own inability to enlist in the aftermath. They didn’t kill him over land or over money, but out of pure racially-driven anger. He was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Komoko’s son was in the service with MacReedy and ended up dying to save his life, and the idea that MacReedy has to come to Black Rock to give a medal to the father of a soldier, only to find his was killed for being Japanese… those are bitter ashes to try and swallow. There is no happy ending to a story like this, because it points at something baked into our national character.
In the end, it comes down to Smith and MacReedy in the desert. Smith’s armed. MacReedy isn’t. Sturges couldn’t have known how profoundly American his film would feel, even this many years later. All he did was take a great script, cast it perfectly at every level, help define modern wide-screen cinematographic language, and then avoid the temptation to overdo it. He made a lean, mean, broken-hearted classic, and when the film reaches its final moments, with Walter Brennan and Spencer Tracy waiting for the train to arrive, it feels like something important has happened. It is a small-scale movie in the best ways, but what it has to say is something we would all do well to hear these days. Some towns come back. Some towns do not. Right now, there’s no way of knowing which way things will go for our town, and it all depends on how deep that wellspring of decency really runs.