John Sturges (Director)

The perfect camera technique is one that the audience doesn’t even know is existing.”

Film is reactive. What counts is what your players react to. So, if you go past your principal actors at what’s happening, then you cut around, reverse back onto that actor — automatically you’re in a close shot, which is what you wanna be, and automatically you’re cutting off what happened to see how it affected him. That’s the name of the game in films.

Born: 3 January 1910, Oak Park, Illinois, United States.

Died: 18 August 1992, San Luis Obispo, California, United States.

Directing career: 1946 – 1976.

Movement: Post-war Hollywood.

Traits: Consummate Hollywood pro known particularly for his action films and his taut westerns in the 1950s, though best remembered today for the bigger productions he worked on in the 1960s: The Magnificent SevenThe Great Escape. His narratives were typically tight and tense, with an emphasis on masculinity, heroism, and action, while his style was marked by a particular flair for ruggedly elegant widescreen compositions.

Collaborators: Steve McQueen (actor), Spencer Tracy (actor), Ferris Webster (editor), Cedric Gibbons (production designer), Charles Lang (cinematographer), Elmer Bernstein (composer), Dimitri Tiomkin (composer).

Films reviewed:

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)


Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

What keeps a community in stability and cohesion? And at what cost should that stability be maintained? These are fundamental questions in American cultural discourse, the United States being itself one large community which constantly needs belief in itself to be re-validated. The values, ideals, dreams upon which it is founded are the bedrock that keep it in a stable status quo. Look beyond the surface and you discover a rotten historical core of slavery, genocide, civil war, all of which continues to pollute personal and institutional relations to this day. You discover the suppressed self-doubt, divisions, and systemic racism. What is a community, a society, supposed to do with these hidden inner truths? Should it risk opening Pandora’s box to air its skeletons in the closet? Or should it sweep things under the carpet in order to preserve the stability and cohesion at any cost?

Hollywood, especially in westerns, explored these wide-ranging questions. Think of John Ford, and how important community was in his cinema. For Ford, the answer to this conundrum would typically be ‘Print the legend over the facts’, because people need myths to believe in, need them to be the glue keeping together the community. Or else… it all falls apart. Just think of how Michael Cimino (a disciple of Ford) dramatises this tension in the finale of The Deer Hunter (1978): those who have made it home from Vietnam, back in that small working-class Pennsylvania community, gather around a table and tentatively sing ‘God Bless America’ together, in a fragile attempt at weaving a social fabric. Their song is empty, meaningless, yet full of meaning at the same time, as it’s binding them together. So, people need something to believe, no matter if it’s illusory. Because the alternative, facing the lies and illusions, the hard self-reflection about mistakes and wrongs, would be far more painful and difficult. It would mean a point-of-no-return for any semblance of the status quo. For the community to survive, it can never be the same again but must lie to itself that it is still the same.

John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a modern western of sorts, set right after the end of WW2, deals with this American contradiction (which of course is just as relevant to any society), this theme of a community torn between self-deception and accepting change. However, it reaches a far less nostalgic, less Fordian, conclusion.

It all begins with the arrival of a train that was not supposed to arrive, in a small Californian desert hamlet called Black Rock. A mysterious stranger (Spencer Tracy) dismounts. He rides no horse but fits the wandering cowboy archetype, the outsider who’ll bring a new equilibrium to the community he enters. Macreedy, as we learn his name to be, arouses surprise and confusion amongst the locals; this is the first time the train’s stopped at their station in four years. Who is this man, this one-armed ex-US Army captain so recently home from the European theatre of war? What business could he possibly have in their dusty middle-of-nowhere town?

Mysterious stranger Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives in town, to suspicious glares.

The locals are bemused and suspicious as a stranger enters their town.

Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as the henchmen of the local town bully.

As we watch and fear for Macreedy’s safety, alone as he is in this inhospitable town with no train passing through again for days, we too begin to wonder what, indeed, is his purpose in Black Rock and whether he might have bitten off more than he can chew. The simmering suspicion of the locals soon turns into hostility, for Black Rock has its share of secrets to hide and hiding them from unknown intruders with indecipherable motives becomes a common cause for the community, bonding it together. Making sure the town’s denizens keep believing in, and working towards, this collective ‘raison d’etre’ is the head honcho Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), local rancher and nominal town leader. In truth, he rules by fear, dominating the townspeople into doing his bidding through threats and force (he even boasts two of Hollywood’s greatest scene-chewing character actors as his loyal henchmen: Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine). Once again we are in familiar western territory: here is the brutish bully whose reign of terror over the community can only be cast away by an outsider.

Where the film departs from traditional westerns is in the nature of the particular secret sustaining Black Rock’s tenuous equilibrium. This specific secret could only belong to the post-WW2 era, which means Bad Day at Black Rock is partly delving into the post-war psyche of American society, more typically film noir territory. The mix of western and film noir allows Bad Day to push into social commentary, coming off the back of more categorical westerns like Zimmermann’s High Noon (1952) or Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), films which were direct critiques of the 1950s McCarthyist witch-hunts. But Sturges’ film has a wider target; the suppressed truths haunting the town here relate to racist hatred, not against the Native American as you might expect in westerns, but against Asians and more specifically the Japanese.

As we soon discover, Reno is a man of rabid prejudice (Robert Ryan, for whatever reason, was so good at playing these nasty characters, though he was the total opposite offscreen). The secret which Macreedy stumbles into involves the racially-motivated murder of a Japanese-American farmer who’d settled on land nearby, and the subsequent arson of his farm to cover things up. There is even a brief line about Japanese-American internment camps, a regrettable episode of US history barely covered by Hollywood (it also gets a passing mention in Otto Preminger’s 1947 Daisy Kenyon) at least until Alan Parker’s rather tepid Come See the Paradise in 1990. Again, as Ford said ‘print the myths’: Hollywood very rarely made films that would tarnish the image of America which the wider collective needed to believe in1. Anyway, Bad Day uses western conventions, yes, but with very much a contemporary, post-WW2 sensibility and social issue (though, from our perspective today we would lament the complete lack of Japanese characters represented in the film).

Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) lets his mask slip off to reveal the rabid racism at the heart of Black Rock’s dark secret.

But rather than stiffen us with woolly liberal Hollywood preaching, Bad Day has the common sense of wrapping its message in a taut, enticing and often gripping western-noir narrative, one suffusing its genre tropes with enough intelligence and craft to give them real depth. Macreedy, the lone hero of the piece and a man of action on the one hand, and the community of Black Rock stuck in an apathetic inaction on the other, must realise their mutual need for each other. The town is frozen under the dark spell of Reno’s domineering regime, forcing all to remain under a fragile glue keeping the community together beneath which simmers moral discontent. Everyone seems aware of the sinister town secret, but nobody dares do anything about it. The sheriff, an impotent cowardly man on Reno’s leash, bitterly drinks himself to oblivion and eats himself alive with guilt after years of failing to act. Walter Brennan’s character Doc, the local veterinarian and undertaker, copes marginally better by using his cynical disgust as a coping mechanism for his inability to fight back against the evil he observes and absorbs — to return to the Cimino comparison, Brennan here is the equivalent of John Hurt’s character in Heaven’s Gate.

The fact Macreedy is on the older side (Tracy was then 55, and considered by some too old for the part of someone who’d just left the army as a captain) and disabled (he is missing one arm, blown up in the war) makes for a fascinating contrast with the other examples of masculinity in Black Rock: the utterly impotent (Walter Brennan’s Doc, the sheriff) or the boorish brutes (Marvin and Borgnine in underwritten parts as Reno’s all-brawn-and-no-brain toughs). Yet Macreedy manages to outfight and outwit all. Sure, the way he all too easily floors Borgnine in what feels an unrealistically clean fight reminds us this is still a Hollywood fiction, but it nonetheless resonates thematically. Firstly, he uses judo to neutralise his assailants, which is of course a Japanese martial art, a combat method he must have learnt during the War2, and discreetly links to the murdered Japanese farmer, as if this element of Japanese culture karmically comes back to wallop the prejudiced bigots. Secondly, the town needs Macreedy, a saviour-like stranger in the Shane tradition, to come in and shake things up to liberate it from Reno’s grasp and its stifling status quo. In order to look within, a community needs help from without.

The one-armed judoka: Macreedy uses Japanese martial art techniques he learnt in the war to neutralise the same brutish goons who helped murder an innocent Japanese-American farmer

Fire symbolism: just as the fire had destructive potential in burning the Japanese-American farmer’s home, so too can it raze everything to the ground for a new start to build on in Black Rock

But the relationship works both ways: Macreedy, a jaded war-torn veteran, needs the town as much as it needs him. The mission he came here to accomplish started out as a duty-bound trip to honour the dying wish of a comrade fallen on the battlefield. What it turns into is a new lease of life, giving him a sense of worth again, a cure for his post-war blues. A side-effect of this is that he provides the impetus for Black Rock’s rebirth, quite literally fighting fire with fire. The symbolism of fire runs throughout the film; Reno’s stranglehold over the town began with the fire that burnt the Japanese farmer’s homestead; the fire of Macreedy’s improvised Molotov cocktail at the end bring things full circle by razing things to the ground, turning Black Rock into Blank Slate. Like a phoenix out of the ashes, Black Rock can now reinvent itself upon sturdier foundations. Ones not built upon racism and murder. To open up the film’s message to wider global context, so too did, allegorically and literally, the post-Hiroshima world need to reconstruct itself, in hope that out of rubble a better world could be built. To discuss the film as we view it in our own context today, so too does our divided, battered, climate-crisis-ridden old world need a reset. Idealistic, no doubt, but interesting that Bad Day’s message ends up going against the wistful Fordian/Cimino mode by having the optimism to present radical social change, a whole new status quo rather than a tentative return to the same broken one, as being a true happy ending. (September 2021)

 1. There were exceptions in the New Hollywood era, with revisionist westerns that went some way to show the horrors of ‘Manifest Destiny’. There were also, of course, Vietnam War films but in most of these the American soldiers end up being the victims in some way, just as in Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and the emphasis is on their experience. On the other hand, think of how few films Hollywood has made about the most regrettable colonial moments in US history: e.g. the occupation of the Philippines or the many CIA-backed coups around the world.

2. To this we may add Macreedy’s use of the Molotov cocktail at the final showdown to incapacitate Reno Smith. This is another martial technique used by Macreedy which, like judo, is exported, since Molotov cocktails were famously coined by Finnish fighters defending against the Soviet invasion of their country. These two elements, the judo and the Molotov cocktail, which he uses to overcome his adversaries make the range of knowhow Macreedy brings home from WW2 truly international. A reminder of how much an insular and prejudiced community, in desperate need of regeneration, can learn from lessons reared in horizons further afoot.

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