Friday, 2 April 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Synopsis: Awesome one armed tie rack molotov cocktail wild west action noir thriller. This neo/pseudo/ersatz western from John Sturges sees dubya dubya eye eye veteran Spencer Tracy visiting the small (minded) town of Black Rock for twenty four hours to find the Japanese-American father of a dead war hero friend.

***WARNING: Spoilers below*** (but I won't reveal too much)

It begins with a long distance train dropping him (the only passenger that embarks) off in the two-bit town. Everyone is immediately suspicious, which in turn arouses the audience's suspicion. Why are they so cagey about this stranger?

We are slowly introduced to some of the other shady characters, all played by western stalwarts (Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan...). The tension is tangible from the start, and as Tracy's reason for visiting slowly becomes clear, the town and its inhabitants begin to unravel.

There's often a feel of a stage play about this film - the way the characters are often placed in relation to each other on set and the sparse production design. Also, there are no close ups, we are forced to see the bigger picture in every shot. This emphasises the smallness of the town and, perhaps, the fact that their dirty secret is now out in the open. They are literally completely exposed, with nowhere to hide.

Spencer Tracy's character slowly uncovers the town's secret almost without having to lift a finger. It is enough that he has just turned up to send Robert Ryan and his thugs into a tailspin of paranoia and threatened violence. Tracy is dressed smartly in a suit, tie and hat, looking cool, calm and collected at all times (sartorially signifying that he DOES NOT BELONG), whilst the townsfolk are dusty and sweaty (apart from the fragrant Ann Francis) in their grubby jeans and cowboy outfits. This sense of alien-ness is heightened by the fact that Spencer Tracy's character has a maimed arm which he doesn't use. Not only is he from some place else and smartly dressed but he's also deformed/disabled.

They are a world away from each other in so many ways and this sense of 'otherness' gets stronger as Tracy gets closer to the truth about the man he is looking for. I say this is a sort of western as it has all the hallmarks - stranger coming into town from an alien place, inadvertantly stirring up traumatic events, pitting one lot of townsfolk against another, and we *know* that the story will have to have a violent, fatal climax. Another review I read mentioned the noir aspects. This could almost be the Big Sleep/Chinatown with the naive newcomer again inadvertantly uncovering dispicable events and forcing the perpertrators to face justice.

The climax of the film sees Spencer Tracy driven out to the desert in the middle of the night to face Robert Ryan. This is such an awesome scene, as we see the almost superhuman Tracy hiding behind a jeep and using a stray empty bottle, the fuel from the jeep and his neck tie to make a Molotov cocktail. Just watching him do all this with one arm is thrilling. He brings down the dastardly Ryan and takes him back to town to face the State Police.

This is a taut, sparse thriller, dealing with otherness, racism and how the Old West is changing to the New West with access to water as a impetus to violent action (cf. Chinatown). Spencer Tracy is a force to be reckoned with and a proper hero.

Friends of mine use this film as a benchmark of when to pull a sickie. If it's on the telly, it's seriously tempting to stay off work just to watch it. They are not wrong.

See also: History of Violence, Chinatown

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