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


  1. Didn't Bergman direct a movie with a similar sentiment? That Sweden is a country where bad or disagreeable things don't happen?

  2. I'm not sure what you mean. Are you referring to Sånt händer inte här (1950)?

    1. Yup, that's the one. Haven't seen it myself though.

    2. Hardly anyone has seen it as Bergman put it behind lock and key. But they have nothing in common though. Bergman’s is about communist spies.

    3. Yes, that much I got. I thought more about the tendency to hush things up and pretend like it's raining.

    4. It's been awhile since I saw it so I don't remember it in such details but rather than exposing uncomfortable truths about Swedes it wants to alert them to the dangers of foreign agents and dictators. So it's not the same message as in Bad Day at Black Rock.

  3. J. Hoberman has apparently seen it - he wrote about it in his book THE RED ATLANTIS, on communism and cinema

    1. Yes, it has been shown on a few occasions. And it got an international release in the 50s. It was called High Tension in the UK, and in Russia Это не может случиться здесь. I think maybe the American title was This Can't Happen Here.