Monday, July 17, 2006

Consumed With Apathy

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK from 1955 is a great thriller and a powerful social statement. It loses a lot of its impact on television, not only because the striking desert photography is severely compromised in a pan-and-scan print, but also because so many scenes involve several men positioned in the frame. A threatening or a conspiratorial conversation involving five or six men becomes much less so when you can only see two of them.

Much of the film's power comes from the mystery behind the arrival in the small desert town of Black Rock of John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man seeking directions to a remote location called Adobe Flat. It's a very small town where everyone really does know everyone else, and that means everyone knows the deadly secret that's buried there. Shame, hatred and guilt shade most of the townspeople from vicious bullies Coley (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector (Lee Marvin) to washed-up sheriff Tim (Dean Jagger) to weak hotel manager Pete (John Ericson) to weary doctor Velie (Walter Brennan). The train hasn't stopped in Black Rock in four years, and now this mysteriously low-key man with a long fuse is asking questions in a small town where everyone is afraid of the answers.

Obviously, the cast, which also offers up beautiful Anne Francis as Pete's protective sister, is a major draw, and one of BAD DAY's highlights is a quietly confrontational chat between Macreedy and Reno Smith, the town boss portrayed by Robert Ryan. Tracy, the very picture of quiet righteousness, was nominated for an Academy Award, as were director John Sturges (who went on to make more action classics like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE) and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who addresses a sore subject that rarely, if ever, had been examined in a Hollywood film.

To discuss more of the script would be to reveal clues to a mystery that should be discovered on your own. Suffice to say that BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK works quite well as a conventional thriller. Admire the careful buildup of hostility in the scene in which Borgnine tries to goad Tracy into a fight, as well as the crisp editing and the character revelation that finishes the scene. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK runs 81 minutes and has not one wasted scene, one wasted line of dialogue. It's a rich and suspenseful picture with an outstanding cast, breathtaking Nevada scenery, properly sparse production design and a sharp Andre Previn score.

1 comment:

Di said...

Congrats on your recent move. This site seems much easier on the eye anyway, Mar-dee!