Bad Day at Black Rock (Blu-ray Review)16 Jan, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine.
As one of the first major movies to tackle the shabby-and-worse treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Bad Day at Black Rock caught on to such a degree at the time with upscale audiences that even its title became part of the everyday vernacular. Even a decade later when I was working at my town’s CBS affiliate while in high school and college, the term was still being regularly thrown around. As when a veteran work colleague, relating an anecdote about one of his old co-workers, noted that the guy had had a “bad day at black rock” when he mistakenly goosed someone waiting in the station lobby from behind with a Life magazine, mistaking him for an acquaintance. Trouble was, he turned out to be the mayor of a suburb waiting to be interviewed on a live news show.
The issue in one of then MGM chief Dore Schary’s best-finessed “problem pictures” is far more serious. Shrewd enough to have couched its message amid some good old-fashioned ass-kicking (or, actually, karate-chopping — which was new and exotic on American screens at the time), Black Rock was a lot of things. Among them: a primer in creative and exciting early use of CinemaScope blocking; one of the shortest Hollywood talkies (81 minutes) of durable significance; and a movie lucky enough, on a posterity level, to have cast two future stars in memorable roles as supporting-cast heavies. It was additionally blessed enough to top-bill the two actors you’d have wanted to have, possibly in all of screen history, if you wanted to pit weary-and-weathered virtue against borderline psychopathic racism for the soul of a desert burg.
As in same-studio MGM’s The Asphalt Jungle a few years earlier when it came to the subject town citizenry and even public servants of alleged virtue turning corrupt, there’s lip service paid here to the assertion that Black Rock — a place so desolate that even today’s Internet and satellite dishes couldn’t have made it tolerable — is an aberration unrepresentative of America on any larger level. Well, let us hope — though this still sounds like a wishful-thinking bone tossed to yahoo reactionaries, some of who would have owned newspapers that could have affected box office. In any event, a mysterious man (or occasionally termed “big man” — which lead Spencer Tracy was not) gets off a train that never normally makes a stop, looking for a likely elderly Japanese-American farmer at a time so early in the immediate postwar era that there are still War Bond posters hanging up.
If the locals would just be nice to him, Tracy’s failure to find the guy might just be shrugged off, and he could spend a good day in Black Rock’s one hotel (Mission Central for a big bunch of nothing) with the bottle in his suitcase until the return train. Yet these guys are so un-hospitable that of one of them is played by the youthfully sleazy Ernest Borgnine about three screen months before Marty humanized his screen image — with another flunky role going to a swaggering Lee Marvin. Now, that’s surly, and it’s the kind of unsolicited defensive behavior that arouses Tracy’s suspicion.
The guy these dolts are serving is casting perfection: Robert Ryan in a hunter’s cap whose bright red stands out against the gold dustiness of MGM’s then unfortunate Eastman Color servicing — though this is one case where the typically washed-out process abetted the look that Oscar-nominated director John Sturges was after. In what was no small consideration, Sturges got along well with Tracy, who would soon be fired for uncooperative behavior (and from longtime home base MGM at that) by director Robert Wise on Tribute to a Bad Man and quickly replaced by James Cagney. The younger man had already directed the boozy and temperamental acting titan on The People Against O’Hara and was later the filmmaker Warner brought in to attempt to save the expensively hit-and-miss (at best) screen version of The Old Man and the Sea after Fred Zinnemann bailed.
Tracy against Ryan is as good as it gets, especially in that Ryan is playing the one assailant in town with a modicum of smarts — which is apparently why the only woman around (Anne Francis, which means she’s comely in addition) has shared some history. Of course, he’s smarter in the way that Hardy has a few more mental chops than Laurel when Ryan is compared to cretinous Marvin and Borgnine — which is one reason why the famous scene in the diner where Borgnine’s in-your-face needling finally goads the otherwise taciturn Tracy into a full p.o’d wipeout mode is so satisfying. In fact, it’s one of my favorite set pieces in all of movie history, as an old white-haired dude in a suit gives Ernie a few tips in screen-door realignment.
Academic Dana Polan’s bonus commentary is less about actors and the production than social currents and dramatic staging — which is fine given the movie in question and because he has a lot of interesting things to say. Polan has some intriguing observations on how Sturges’s blocking enhances our understanding of character relationships in a town semi-segregated into elderly washouts (Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger), younger men who run the villainous show and a woman sadly out of place in a male Podunk. The director also repeatedly suggests a little with a lot, something Oscar-nominated Millard Kaufman’s script does as well (you would not glean from this picture that Kaufman was among the creators of Mr. Magoo, other than the fact that the near-sighted one and Tracy both regularly did the AARP demographic proud on screen). Polan also advances a compelling thought on how a war vet who fought in Italy would know about martial arts techniques — a light bulb over the head I’d never thought of despite the times I’ve ever seen the movie. This Blu-ray, by the way, looks and sounds as good as a terrific mint print I once ran of Black Rock at the AFI Theater.
The movie is listed in all the books as a 1955 release, but I think MGM may have sneaked it into New York at the end of ’54, just as Paramount did with The Bridges at Toko-Ri. As it was, Tracy was up for the ’55 Oscar against James Dean for some nice generational symmetry — as well as the Marty Borgnine (who won), James Cagney and Frank Sinatra. Those were the days and also the first Oscarcast I ever saw, though it’s not just nostalgia that puts this one over.