Friday 29 January 2016

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

What do you care about Black Rock?
I don't care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren't many towns like this in America. But one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can't seem to find a handle to.
You don't know what you're talking about.
Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here and the guerrillas have taken over.
The Americans and the Japanese have had an awkward relationship ever since 1853 when Commodore Perry's gunboats opened up Japan to the outside world and brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to an end. They are now close allies but in the 1980s USA was convinced that Japan would take over as the number one power and buy up America (a fear which can be seen in films as diverse as Gung Ho (Ron Howard 1986) and Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988)), and during the 1930s they were enemies and fought each other during World War 2, after which the US occupied Japan until 1952. Many films have been made about the war in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, including John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945). Considerably fewer films have been made about what happened with the Japanese who were in the US during the war, and the Japanese-Americans. One of those rare films is Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges 1955).

It is set in 1945 and takes places during 24 hours, from when the Southern Pacific makes a brief and unexpected stop at Black Rock (stopping for the first time in four years) until the train comes along the same time the next day, again making a brief and unexpected stop. In between a stranger, Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, has been forced to take on almost the whole town as the people in it first want him to leave and then want to kill him. Once something bad happened in Black Rock and ever since the town has been walking dead, consumed by fear and guilt. For some Macreedy is seen as a threat but to others as a chance for redemption.

The town's unofficial leader as a man called Smith, played by Robert Ryan, and he is clearly responsible for the bad thing that happened, whatever it was. Macreedy has come to Black Rock to visit the father of a friend, a Japanese man called Komoko. But he is not there anymore and his place has been burned to the ground. In one particularly powerful sequence Macreedy is trying to coax Smith into admitting that he killed Komoko, and that he killed him only because he was Japanese. Macreedy is gentle, soft-spoken and sitting down, Smith is tense, aggravated and standing up, menacing.

The film was shot on location in the dry, hot inland of California, close to where during the war there had been a relocation camp in which thousands of Japanese-Americans had been locked up. This is also something that comes up in the dialogue. The different men in the town all have their different reasons for why they acted like they did, and now act like they do. For Smith it is a combination of disappointment (for not being accepted by the army when he tried to enlist) and pure racism; hatred of the Japanese. But it is also because he knows that his way of life and his breed is doomed, they have no place in a modern, post-war America. In some ways he is related to Ethan Edwards in Ford's The Searchers (1956), another embittered man for whom there is no place in a post-war era. (It is also possible to draw a connection to the Bundy gang who are currently occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon.) But he is not unique, and maybe he is called Smith to emphasise how ordinary he is. He could be anybody.

Perhaps unexpectedly this is a MGM production, produced by Dore Schary, who was keen on having his liberal inclinations seen in the films he produced. Bad Day at Black Rock had a pointed progressive political message, and the heads at the studio were not keen on it, but Schary prevailed. It was also MGM's first film in CinemaScope, and likewise its director John Sturges' first film in that format. Sturges said he would do it on condition that he was left alone on set, and he did get to make it his way. One thing he did was to get rid of all the extras. The only people seen in the film are the main characters, except for the first and last scene. Sturges did not want any distractions in his compositions, and they are powerful. He is one of the great Scope directors, a natural for compositions, and this was obvious already here in his first try. It looks spectacular, and Sturges seems to be thrilled by what he can do with the wide frame and frequently, by his staging and blocking, draws attention to the images so that they become like still lifes. In some scenes it is as if Sturges suddenly freezes the action for a few seconds, like in this impromptu meeting between several men in a series of elaborately composed shots. The point is not so much what they are talking about as for Sturges to show what he can do, and what the format can do.

The script by Millard Kaufman, is very good, and the dialogue as well, but it is Sturges's handling of the material that makes the film the great work of art that it is.

There is one absence in the film: they all speak of the Japanese but no one is seen, which is part of the force of the film. They are not there anymore because bad things happen in places like Black Rock.

For those who wish to explore more of Sturges at his best there is The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and The Hour of the Gun (1967).

Here are two earlier related articles:
On the two Sturges, Preston and John.
On The Great Escape (1963).

Another recommended film is House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller 1955), see accompanying post here.

The Law and Jake Wade

House of Bamboo (1955)

Here is a bonus post. The main feature today is about Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges 1955) but that same year Sam Fuller made House of Bamboo on location in Japan, and like Bad Day at Black Rock it was in CinemaScope and also with Robert Ryan as the main villain, so they have things in common. It is a very Fullerian film: violent, extravagantly shot (all over Tokyo) with a very mobile camera and alternating between the absurd and the profound, and, as always, there is a character named Griff. It is a thriller, a docudrama, while also a sweet love story between an American army man (played by Robert Stack) and a Japanese woman (played by Yoshiko Yamaguchi, credited as Shirley Yamaguchi). Sessue Hayakawa plays a Japanese police inspector. As a study in racial relations it is a companion piece to Fuller's later, and more aggressive, China Gate (1957), Run of the Arrow (1957) and White Dog (1982).

Here are some suggestive images.

Friday 15 January 2016

Equinox Flower (1958)

What is said about directors, regarding their style or themes or message or some such, is frequently wrong, partly because most directors are a lot more eclectic and flexible than the popular view of them can account for. This is also true of course for Yasujiro Ozu, even though he might appear to be the most consistent and rigid filmmaker of them all. But too many seem to base their view of Ozu on just one film, Tokyo Story (1953), and suggesting that he was conservative, that there is no camera movements, that the camera is always placed at the height of somebody sitting down and that they are all about the family. But there is much more to Ozu's style and themes than this. Explicitly so if you consider both his pre-war films and his post-war films, and less obvious but still indubitably if you only consider the post-war films. And the post-war films should be considered, most of them. Those who have only seen Tokyo Story have but a partial view of Ozu. His humour, irony, visual wit, discussions about class and allusions to the war, and his exquisite use of colour; these are things that are not necessarily present in Tokyo Story, which, although a very fine film, should only be considered a starting point.

His first film in colour was Equinox Flower (1958), which is a contender for being his best work. It is about a family in which the father likes to see himself as a liberal, and with the times, but when his daughter wants to marry her boyfriend, and will not accept an arranged marriage, he forgets all about his enlightened talk and becomes implacable. He refuses to give his consent to this marriage, and the family becomes increasingly strained, or rather, he becomes estranged from the women, his wife and daughters.

But that is just the plot summary, and with Ozu plot summaries are usually beside the point. It is the style with which they are told that is the point, and the feelings expressed.

The father is played by Shin Saburi, who acted in many of Ozu's films. In the earlier The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) he plays a man who is married without children but who is supporting his niece against her having to be forced into an arranged marriage. "Don't let her have the kind of marriage we are having." he says to his wife in a moment of heartbreaking honesty. That is really the theme of that film, the unhappy marriage between two people with nothing in common. In Equinox Flower the marriage is happy, the focus is elsewhere; on the gap between two different generations. And Ozu, despite the claim that he was conservative and backward looking, is clearly on the side of the younger ones, they are in the right and their ideas are where the future of Japan lies. Ozu is however also sympathetic to the father; he is not a villain, he is just struggling with the societal changes. Or maybe he just does not want to lose his daughter. Maybe he just cannot accept that she has grown up. In one scene he angrily asks the daughter "Have you slept with him?" which she refuses to answer. It is not clear whether he has problems with her wanting to marry a man of her own choosing, or if it is that he cannot accept that she has grown up and become a person who has sex. It is possibly both.

The alienated salaryman.

And then there is the style. It might be Ozu's most perfectly shot and designed film. Every frame a marvel of precision and clarity, yet simultaneously brimming with beauty and wit. Ozu's images talk to each other, one might counteract another, or a shot might appear which is almost identical to an earlier shot, there is just one slight alternation, or there might be an insignificant object which has a disproportionately strong presence in several shots. Like this red tea pot.

Just two examples.

So the richness of Equinox Flower is incredible. It is perhaps a little bit narrow, compared to its companion piece The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice, which also has that class aspect which is rarely mentioned when discussing Ozu (it is for example suggested, in a few sweet and understated scenes, that the husband in the unhappy marriage would be happier if he had been married to their maid, but that was of course not an option), and there is more humour in Green Tea, but visually Equinox Flower is a work of perfection, and that helps balance the more streamlined plot. The warmth and humanity is equal in both. This brief scene below captures all of this. The wife is played by Kinuyo Tanaka and here she and her husband is contemplating life and the passing of time. 

Two earlier posts about Ozu:

For those interested in Ozu and class, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) is good place to start.

Ozu followed Equinox Flower with the equally exquisite Good Morning (1959), which is also required viewing. The cinematographer on them was an Ozu regular, Yuharu Atsuta, who shot all films mentioned in this post.