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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

Director: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan

A train runs down a track dividing nothing from nothing – on either side is barren land. It stops at Black Rock, a town so small it’s little more than a speck on the landscape. The tightly knit (and almost entirely male) community is stunned – the train hasn’t stopped at Black Rock in four years. John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train and begins enquiring about accommodations; he intends to stay the night. The residents are suspicious. Who is this one-armed stranger, and what does he want in Black Rock? More importantly, why does he keep asking questions?

So begins Bad Day At Black Rock, which spans the course of one day and one night in a town with a shared secret and a desperate desire to keep it. Macreedy is immediately aware of how unwanted he is – the local gang, who take their cues from Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), first hint at it, then come right out and say it, and then decide that Macreedy knows too much and can’t be allowed to leave alive. Macreedy hasn’t come to town for the reason these locals think, but his matter is related, and the questions he asks hit too close to home. Macreedy is looking for a Japanese farmer named Komoko who lives on the outskirts of town… or at least, he did. He’s disappeared and his farm is in ruins.

The town is divided into two halves: those who want to keep the circumstances of the farmer’s disappearance a secret (Reno Smith, his henchmen played by Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, the local hotel proprietor and his sister, who has a thing for Reno) and those who want to loosen the stranglehold that the gang has on the town (the drunken Sheriff played by Dean Jagger, the doctor played by Walter Brennan). Everyone knows what happened to Komoko, who was killed in a senseless, hateful crime. Smith, whom the army rejected from service in World War II, initiated the attack, channelling his inability to fight a declared/legitimate enemy (Japan) into a strike against the harmless farmer, and whipping half the town into such a frenzy that the event escalated and resulted in death. At the end of the film Macreedy reveals that he came to town to find Komoko in order to give him his son’s medal – a medal he earned when he saved Macreedy’s life while fighting in the Pacific. It’s a pertinent reminder of the lunacy of racially based violence, the fervour against difference, and knee-jerk patriotism.

Over the course of the film’s day, we watch Macreedy’s evolution. He enters the story a broken man - there’s some suggestion that after he’s taken care of this last bit of business, he’ll commit suicide. With just one arm, he doesn’t feel that he’s good for anything anymore. We watch as he lets himself get pushed around by the local tough guys. And then we watch as he finally has enough and starts pushing back. There is a fight scene in this film that, once you’ve seen it, you’ll wonder how you ever went so long without having seen it, when one-armed Spencer Tracy completely and definitively kicks Ernest Borgnine’s ass. Despite his disability and his age, Macreedy has the edge because he isn’t relying simply on brawn – he has the brains to outsmart the whole gang. They know it; that’s why they need to kill him.

The film is a western played at the pitch of a thriller. Black Rock is like the last outpost of the wild, lawless west where various and sundry misfits and gunslingers come together to run out their days. In an early confrontation, Macreedy asks Smith what he’s afraid Macreedy is looking for. “I don’t know,” says Smith, “Somebody’s always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West. They say we’re all poor and backward, and I guess we are. We don’t even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West, and I wish they’d leave us alone.” The film makes a point of stressing male passivity – Macreedy’s at the beginning; Pete, the hotel manager who wants to come clean but is bullied by the rest of the gang into keeping quiet; Smith, with regards to his inability to fight in the war; and finally the passivity of the town itself, which is predominantly male (in fact, we only ever meet one woman, Liz, Pete’s sister). As Smith points out, Black Rock is a town constantly defined by other people’s standards, and it’s this lack of subjectivity that runs underneath the town, eventually exploding in violence as with the attack on Komoko, and the various attacks on Macreedy.

This is a film that’s strong on every level – the story, the pace, the tone, the way that it’s filmed – but the element working most in its favour is the acting. I’m not sure that any film has ever had more Oscar winners per capita (Spencer Tracy won two, Walter Brennan won three, and Jagger, Borgnine and Marvin each won one). It’s a treat to get to see a group of such talented actors, each at the top of their game, playing off of each other, and it makes for a riveting viewing experience.

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