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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Metro Coils A Tight Spring

Bad Day At Black Rock Is 1954's Lean and Mean

Of what-ifs connected with this, there is Don Siegel having been engaged at one point, holding the yarn awhile with hope of Joel McCrea for the lead, then standing down in favor of richer interests. Good as Black Rock is, I think a Siegel-McCrea partnership might have yielded better. Not that Metro's is overproduced, as well we might have expected. Bad Day At Black Rock is commendably brief (under ninety minutes) and plays like "B" noir blown out with cinemascope and color. The wideness, then a new thing, was enhance to arid background chosen, familiar Lone Pine never looking so desolate. Another what-if: Does Warner have the flat version made in tandem with scope one that was released? Director John Sturges says they definitely shot both ways. I'll bet there were early 16mm rental prints done from the flat negative, as was case with several others where there was choice. Bad Day At Black Rock would be a very different movie at closed-in setting.

The title became familiar expression for years to come. I heard it the first time from a friend's dad who referred to dire things getting ready to happen. Movies have given us lots of word-play that time eroded since. Nice to know Bad Day At Black Rock made enough impression as to broaden the title's usage. And yes, it was a success, $4.5 million in worldwide rentals against negative cost of $1.2 million, latter a lean spend for grandeur they got at Lone Pine and a clearly "A" cast. The story had good vibes from inception, like The Gunfighter of several years earlier passed from hand-to-hand and getting better with each writer's pass. The lone man investigating murder in a hostile burg was sure-fire then, remains so now, being not only a noir standard, but a western one as well. Dore Schary personally produced ... I'd like to think he brought RKO sensibility to tighten of situations and dialogue. Those Lone Pine festivals must be a wing-ding when Black Rock is shown, jeeps and trains careening over desert where Hoppy and Hoot had once horse-rode.

To grandeur of that comes John Sturges direction, him an emerging master of space and men dwarfed by it. He'd spend a next decade and numerous films refining the art, especially in westerns where characters were spread across screens, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, Last Train From Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, others. Critics liked Bad Day At Black Rock for its raising pulse plus what many saw as political blow struck at round-up and confinement of Japanese-Americans during the last war. Latter is talked about, post-Pearl rage with murder as result the driving force of narrative. We're way in before knowing all that, ergo much of Bad Day is mystery. What might have passed as simple actioner got heft thanks to the weightier content, Bad Day a first out of Hollywood to address internment/backlash issue. Schary could equate it with Crossfire as lucrative wedding of social issue with boxoffice. Black Rock's story taking place in 1945 made it no less relevant, as situations could be projected onto current racial-ethnic disputes.

A younger actor might more credibly have done the Spencer Tracy lead, but who could project so vulnerable as this fifty-four, looking sixty-four (at least) star carrying thirty pounds (again at least) too many and minus an arm in the bargain? That last was a selling point toward Tracy acceptance of the part, but combo of everything sure puts his character between rock and hardest place of lethal Robert Ryan and bully-killers Ernest Borginine and Lee Marvin. Tracy at 5' 10" is referenced by Ryan as a "big" man, which in heft terms, yes, but we, and they, are talking more of Tracy the actor, I suspect, who brings more size to the part than any of still active peers could have managed. We wait willingly for his worm to turn, knowing what Tracy in past could do when finally riled. Bad Day At Black Rock speaks best to proposition that the longer the fuse, the more memorable is action once uncorked. In this case, Tracy lays waste to Borginine with judo chopping, a quick disposal that once seen, is not forgotten. Will movies ever again have such confidence as to withhold action for so long, let alone pay off so mightily once they deliver?

The scene has taken on life of its own quite outside of Bad Day At Black Rock, being excerpted between a thousand TCM movies as survivor co-stars talk about working with master thesp Spence (but wait ... all that cast is gone now). Details are what delights: Tracy ordering chili because that's all the diner has, but with coffee?? Hard to imagine eat/drink less appetizing, unless it's Edward G. Robinson and Doug Jr. having spaghetti and java in Little Caesar. Did men in movies ever ask for lemonade or orange juice? A nice thing about real life is having choice beyond whiskey or coffee, the two a seeming only option for heroes on screen (Randolph Scott got round to near-spoof of the unwritten law by obsessing over coffee in his late 50's westerns penned by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher). Staging permits Borginine to be believably beaten by Tracy's double, latter's substitution obvious mainly in the last bit where Ernie is judo flipped. Bad Day At Black Rock was good for Spencer Tracy because it put him for first time in a long time before an action audience, this one and Broken Lance harbingers of rugged things to come. Too bad Tracy wasn't in better shape to make a most of man-up stuff, as would contemporaries Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, who'd carve legend status deeper riding hard on wider 50's screens. Attitude surely made a difference, for Tracy continually referred to himself as an "old man," despite what moderns might characterize as comparative youth at 54. For sure, I'd take all of 54 they've got, and re-do a last eight years of Greenbriar among a lot of other things.


Blogger MikeD said...

Wow, Joel McCrea in the Spencer Tracy role. That would have been something! My brother and I hit the Lone Pine Fest every year and one year "Bad Day at Black Rock" was the theme of the festival. Ernest Borgnine was a great guest and told stories of being up at Lone Pine on Randolph Scott western not knowing how to ride a horse. But when asked, said sure he did. He told of reading for the part in "Marty" in a Lone Pine motel. He was a real friendly guy as opposed to when Jack Palance was a guest (whew boy!)
My brother and I became friends over the years with some of the Lone Pine residents. One arranged for us to ride over the Alabama Hills in a helicopter. The three of us drove over to the small airport (look for those trees along the road when Bogie & Ida Lupino are talking in the car at the end of "High Sierra"). Our friend got out to talk to the pilot, came back and said that he hoped that we didn't mind having an extra passenger with us. So who walks out of the office, Anne Francis!

8:38 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Just last month, Fernando Martín Peña devoted a week introducing films directed by John Sturges. In this case, here is the introduction to BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, which features some information that is not featured in your writings.

11:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Bill Lund sends along some nice You Tube links. Much appreciated, Bill!


Thanks for highlighting this important film.

Some links on "youtube:

John Sturges film making philosophy/commentary on “Bad Day at Black Rock”

Ernest Borgnine's recollections of working with Spencer Tracy on “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Bill Lund

7:28 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Despite the comments suggesting the negatives of Tracy playing the role, I can't imagine anyone else in the part no matter how hard I try. His age, his chunky body, his white hair all make him someone we pull for. And that five second fight...whew!

10:08 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

WHY do authors keep insisting that 50s films were all pablum(and blame the red scare)?

4:10 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

I want to hear more about the film being shot in 2 different film aspect ratios. I watched it a few days ago in HD from TCM and it really used the Cinemascope framing so well.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Loved this as a kid, and finally watched it last week projected in 'scope. Still effective, but now in spite of, not thanks to, a musical score on steroids. It wears out its welcome before the credits are over, screaming at us, SOMETHING BIG IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN!!!

It's as though the composer, the conductor, and every member of the orchestra (even the women) all had raging hard-ons. It's exhausting, and works against the suspense being built up (makes one long for Sergio Leone and a quietly menacing harmonica) and renders the film, for me, nearly unwatchable -- luckily that stellar cast pulls it off despite the musical mayhem whirling around them.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Over the years the music never seemed negatively intrusive to me--I just keep getting caught up with the actors, but I can see how a muted score would've been perhaps a wiser concept. I find the movie endlessly repeatable to view--so many interesting characters, and a really touching role for Anne Francis.

8:12 AM  

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