Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bad Day at Black Rock

"Bad Day at Black Rock" (John Sturges, 1955) WWII vet John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train at Black Rock--the first time the train has stopped in four years. He's looking for a man named Komoko, and he is treated with an inexplicable hostility that he can't fathom and no one will explain. Macreedy, stoically--though increasingly crankily, sets out to find the man he's looking for, and has his life threatened several times by the town toughs (Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and the town "boss" Robert Ryan). And though Macreedy may only have one hand, he's quite capable of using it to defend himself, and discover the town's secret that would force the tiny town's residents to kill.

It's hard to believe that "Bad Day at Black Rock" was considered "subversive" by its studio M-G-M when it was being made but, ten years after the end of World War II, it was considered a hot potato, especially while its production was going on in the waning days of the McCarthy hearings. One couldn't mistake the metaphor of a town cowed by a single man who bends rules to his favor, and harasses outsiders who ask questions.

Right off the bat, one is struck by an over-earnestness that feels false. The wide-screen titles* of a train careening through the Southwest desert is backed by a semi-hysterical Andre Previn score--full of sound and fury and signifying...a train, feels overdone and pointlessly busy.

Previn will keep popping up, goosing the action like a teen-ager playing his radio too loud at a funeral, ** and everything is done with such brutish heavy-handedness and self-importance that one could mistake this for a Stanley Kramer production.

Tracy is reliably lived in as the maimed vet who comes to town, but he's a shade long-in-the-tooth for the role.
Robert Ryan starts subtle and ends up chewing the cactus in much the same way that Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine do their dirty work.*** Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger and Anne Francis (the only female in town) round out the cast as sycophants and victims, weak in one way or another.

Ultimately it all comes down to a secret and the conspiracy to keep it that way beyond all reason; obviously, all these guys must have been part of the Bad Rock City Council. There are bursts of action including Tracy taking on Borgnine (I'm part mule, part alligator") with one mutilated hand in his pocket, and the other accomplishing some fancy karate and judo moves, something not often seen in '50's films. But one acknowledges that though the film's heart is in the right place, too much of it has spilled out onto its sleeve.

* Can someone explain to me, for the love of Mike, why this small-scale film about a veritable ghost-town of few actors was filmed in the widest of Cinema-scopes?

** In five years that "goosing" of slow material would pay off like gang-busters with Elmer Bernstein's energetic score for "The Magnificent Seven.

***Ironically, Tracy would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar that year and lose to...Ernest Borgnine, playing the title role of "Marty."



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