Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock

A one-armed man gets off a train in Black Rock, a little town in the American west that seems to have fallen off the twentieth century somewhere before the New Deal. It’s 1945, the war is over, and the man—John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, slouching and with his hand in his pocket, which sounds like bad manners but is actually acting)—is looking for a Japanese farmer named Komoko.

The townspeople eye this one-armed stranger distrustfully, circling him endlessly and peppering him with passive-aggressive questions about what he wants, why would he even stop there, when is he leaving, and so on. They say Komoko was taken away when the government interned Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor—a startling detail, to hear a 1955 film address an often ignored blot on history—but Macreedy senses something is wrong and digs deeper.

Macreedy finds himself marked as an outsider the instant he steps off that train, every dusty eye on him as he gapes uncomprehendingly at the inexplicable hostility that greets him everywhere. He finds himself headed down the same path Komoko must have walked before him, heading into the same blind spot in collective memory that hides the fate of the farmer. Small-town bigotry follows the same pattern regardless of its target.

Bad Day at Black Rock could easily have been unbearable, but director John Sturges wisely focuses his energy on emphasizing the thriller aspects of story while letting the racial commentary stand on its own. Indeed, aside from a few chunky, obvious lines of dialogue (“I’m consumed by apathy!”) and an unnecessary third-act revelation about Komoko’s son being a decorated American war hero, the film rarely tips its hand. Putting the wide-open spaces of CinemaScope to good use, Sturges simply gives the audience room to breathe in deep the poison atmosphere of this decayed little town.

Spencer Tracy plays Macreedy with reticent charisma. You get the impression he’d rather be somewhere else the instant he sets foot in Black Rock, and that diffidence helps prevent the film from sliding into pious sermonizing. With his harrumphing, beleaguered quality, you half-expect Macreedy to give up and skip out on this quest before uncovering the truth, rather than face the trouble it would bring. In fact, he even does try to escape once, but no luck—he can’t find a car to carry him away.

Aside from Tracy’s fine lead turn, there are a lot of incidental pleasures to be found in the supporting cast. The film benefits greatly from a well-chosen collection of stalwart Hollywood second bananas, all playing to their specialties—Robert Ryan is a controlling sociopath, Walter Brennan a jittery wash-out, and Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin menacing thugs (I call them Sneery and Scowly). No one stretches too far out of his comfort zone, but there’s a certain joy in watching the old pros going through their paces.

Sturges brings similar workmanlike grit to the proceedings. He rarely gets much mention these days, even though some of his films—notably The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape—have achieved a measure of posterity. He’s really more of a craftsman than your typical auteur material, one of the many dependable if unspectacular journeymen directors who worked their way through the Hollywood studio system.

And that’s okay. If he felt himself to be one of those higher-calling artist types who believe in the social responsibility of art and all that jazz, Bad Day at Black Rock could very quickly have devolved into an orgy of self-regarding guilt instead of the taut, thoughtful thriller we have instead. Like any good journeyman director in 1950’s Hollywood, Sturges focuses his energy on creating a tense, compelling story—which only adds depth and complexity to the film’s treatment of racism. This is no earnest “message” picture—just a simple, smart movie—and thank goodness for that.

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