' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Friday, June 18, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

The American southwest town of Black Rock in John Sturges’s 1955 drama is not so much one that time forgot as one seeking to ensure it is not remembered, or perhaps not even known about at all. The opening images of a train knifing through the desert suggest that dividing line between out-of-date and modern, between Old West and New West, the distinction similar to so many western movies. Gradually, though, we realize this isn’t the 1800s nor even the turn of the century; there are cars and then, even later, talk of Pearl Harbor. That last one is the crucial clue. If 1955 America was knee-deep in the Eisenhower Era post-war boom, “Bad Day at Black Rock” came along to ensure America’s transgressions of the preceding decade were not shoved out of sight, dragging the Japanese interment sin back out into the light, brought home in Spencer Tracy’s costuming, dressed in a black suit, like an undertaker.

Tracy’s one-armed character, John J. Macreedy, has come to Black Rock in search of an old friend named Kokomo, though who Kokomo was, what happened to him and what Macreedy wants with him are all effectively teased out over half the movie. That deliberate narrative boosts the drama while Sturges mostly prefers telling the story through atmosphere, acting and visuals. Though in wide shots from above Sturges initially paints Macreedy as a lonely man in a lonely place, this gives way to continuous scenes of Black Rock’s ornery citizens nipping at heels. Indeed, Sturges gets great mileage just from his framing, virtual paintings of small town persecution, inside and outside, Macreedy constantly boxed in and squeezed out of shots by threatening townfolk staking their territory. That title, “Bad Day at Black Rock”, almost sounds droll in nature, suggesting Macreedy is enduring a kind of cosmic crucible, all of which Macreedy meets with a Biblical patience, brought out in Tracy’s taciturn smile that quietly needles the men needling him, like he knows the answer to a riddle they don’t.

The preeminent bully is Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). His profession is nebulous, as it is for everyone here, the town sheriff (Dean Jagger) asleep in his own cell when Macreedy finds him, putting into perspective how he’s not really in charge, true, but also how he has nothing much to do, like the badge is just part of a costume. In fact, Reno takes that badge away at one point, only underlining its meaningless and epitomizing his grip on the community. But in a conversation with Macreedy outside a gas station, the blocking illustrating the shifting power dynamics of their tête-à-tête, Reno’s half-confession of the truth about Kokomo’s fate is just as much about revealing his own insecurities about not being allowed to fight in WWII. All the intimidation of Macreedy up to this point, then, is rewired as something else, one insecure little boy posing as a big man deploying violence to cover up his own impotency, laid bare by the seemingly impotent one-armed Macreedy who turns out not to be so impotent at all. Because if Macreedy’s resistance to altercation might be a liberal sort of call to non-violence, he ultimately proves not entirely above dishing out a little violence of his own when finally pushed to it, in a skillfully staged scene at a diner that ends with Reno’s chief muscle (Ernest Borgnine) roughed up and standing, ridiculously, in a broken doorframe like Buster Keaton in the open window of the fallen house but if he were Biff Tannen in the boys covered in Hill Valley manure. 

By revealing the secret of Kokomo before the end, it forces all the characters in “Bad Day at Black Rock” to draw lines in the sand, like Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) finally seeing a way to repent for his sin or Liz (Anne Francis) selling out Macreedy in the end, culminating in an astonishing shot of her bright white face framed against the black of night behind her, crystallizing her forthcoming disappearance into the void. It’s indicative of a darkness that shrouds Black Rock despite a hopeful ending in which the good-minded holdovers plan to rebuild. That might sound absurd given how Black Rock itself never feels like much more than a series of false old west fronts waiting to topple in the wind. But this apparent flaw proves to be the movie’s greatest strength, as if Black Rock has been built on simmering rage and resentment rather than any kind of economy. And that’s why “Bad Day at Black Rock” feels timeless, as true to its post-WWII era as to our perpetually aggrieved, lizard brained present. 

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