Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy and Small-Town Bigotry

Review: Bad Day at Black Rock: Japanese-Americans and Small-Town Bigotry

In its theatrical cut, Bad Day at Black Rock opens furiously, charging forward with the momentum of a freight train as the credits roll and Andre Previn’s score thrashes in the film’s most manic moment.

From thenceforward, its greatest strength is restraint. The whole town cowers around watching the train arrive with a mysterious one-arm man named Macreedy aboard. If the mysterious out-of-towner isn’t enough, it might also be the fact they haven’t had a visitor for well-nigh four years. This is big news but they aren’t looking to be neighborly. The local observation from the train conductor is telling:

“Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

“I’ll only be here 24 hours.”

“In a place like this, that can be a lifetime.”

The opening minutes not only set up our character but this impeccable environment for accentuating the underlying unfriendliness. The wide-open spaces of Lone Pine, CA are as much about the vast planes created between people as it merely breathtaking landscape. Because it’s gloriously austere, and it’s completely evident we really are off the beaten track.

Spencer Tracy might seem an odd choice, given the traits of his character; he seems too old and overweight to be a recently discharged veteran of WWII, especially since the year is 1945. And he’s hardly a western hero or an action star in the commonly accepted sense. A film like this would normally call for a hybrid between Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, or Clint Eastwood.

It borrows from westerns and noir, but I hesitate to label it as either. Because it has near revisionist outcomes and a palette more akin to large-scale epics than B-level entertainment. There’s really nothing else I can think of with such a fascinating and simultaneously confounding pedigree.

Macreedy is intent on visiting Adobe Flat, but he seems like a genial fellow. It’s everyone else who loiter around menacingly. They’re either outright brusque like, the local hotel clerk, or pushy folks who ask him straightforward-like what he wants around their town.

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In certain terms, Black Rock is the epitome of rural America — with a sinister twist. It’s smaller than small. Everyone knows the business of everyone else. But these folks are about as tight-lipped and inhospitable as anyone ever in the history of humanity when it comes to outsiders. What’s more, they have little reason to be unless they have something to hide. Of course, they must be covering some secret, but we don’t know quite what it is. There we have our movie.

The beauty of the story is how it plays close to the vest on both accounts. Because Macreedy seems to be in no hurry to broadcast his news all around. Simply the fact he has come to town at all seems like enough. He finally does let his business come out talking to the local sheriff (Dean Jagger), another very gracious fellow in line with all the others. Macreedy is there to see a man named Komoko. The name is a tip-off for some. He is Japanese and we are sitting on the tail-end of WWII.

It recalls the quote always attributed to Hitchcock: “The thrill is not in the bang but the anticipation of it.” John Sturges, while known for action films, does such a measured job of stretching out of the tension of this picture. It gets to this unbearable high deserving some sort of release.

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One could say it happens in the diner. Spencer Tracy is working on a bowl of chili, only to get needled by Ernest Borgnine. First it’s a squabble over a chair, then it’s a bottle of ketchup being poured into a bowl of chili. It’s a maddening scene of belittling, but Spencer Tracy takes everything in stride with the finest brand of mild amusement. Everything slides off his back. The following interchange is representative:

“You’re a yellow-belly Jap lover, am I right or wrong?” – Coley Tremble
“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” – Macreedy

Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin are lounging around to watch the show. Up until this point Macreedy has kept his cool and one might say he walks out as calmly as he came in, but he also exerts himself like he has yet to do. It’s a cathartic moment and as an audience, it gives us an unalienable belief in our hero. We wanted to believe he could hold his own implacably and he can. But the forces against him are nevertheless stifling.

We get the final piece of vital information. Macreedy came to town because of Joe Komoko, who died in Italy saving the life of his brother-in-arms. Forever in his debt, he thought the least he could do was pass on a medal and his condolences. It’s gratifying to have it spelled out, but the bottom line is still the same. Tracy is all but trapped without any outside assistance.

His only chance is some inside help — someone who is willing to do something right for a change, instead of turning a blind eye. The closest he finds is in the local doctor/undertaker (Walter Brennan) who gives his best half-hearted attempt to help the stranger.

Meanwhile, the town’s poor excuse for a sheriff (Dean Jagger), who spends his days nursing the bottle and his nights sleeping in his own jail cell, finally feels compelled to take a stand. His behavior strips him of his badge. The final reluctant players are the tight-lipped hotel clerk and his young sister (Anne Francis), who both aid Macreedy begrudgingly. In a town like this, each action seems nearly monumental. One questions if it is enough.

I challenge anyone to stack the movie up against most any cast of the 1950s, especially because this is not some grandiose epic. This film clocks in at a mere 81 minutes of film, but it has more than enough to go around. Robert Ryan, in particular, is a crucial piece. He always gets these roles as militant bigots and in one sense you feel bad for him and in the other, he’s so convincing at it you can understand why.

His blatant malevolence briefly hidden under a thin exterior is the perfect foil for Tracy to bounce off of. Because they share conversation civilly enough, but it all draws out how diametrically opposed they are. Macreedy got it in Italy. Smith tried enlisting straight after Pearl Harbor but wasn’t accepted.

We come to understand his view of humanity is cut-and-dry. Komoko was a lousy Jap farmer. Pearl Harbor and Corregidor. They’re all the same. There’s no such thing as a loyal Japanese-American. Its this type of rhetoric we must immediately be wary of. For it is pernicious.

At his first chance, Macreedy decides he should get out of town since he’s hit a dead-en, attempting to notify the state police on his way out. He bumps into another bystander, the squeamish telegraph officer Hastings, who excuses himself by saying, “I’m just a good neighbor.”

Of course, as Macreedy suspects, his definition only stretches to those who share his skin tone. He is yet another problem character. Because he has no guts and if I indict him then I am indicting myself as well. There is no place for wishy-washiness with such issues.

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Bad Day at Black Rock, personally, is an important film for me because, like Daisy Kenyon or The Steel Helmet, it stands as a record of Japanese-Americans place in a polarized society. There was injustice done, and it’s not something we should try and forget. The acknowledgment alone is a victory and yet another important record in the annals of visual history.

However, getting beyond, this thriller is ultimately about a hero who is doing his best to honor another man — of course, he happens to be Japanese-American — but most importantly he is given the dignity and the respect of a human being. Because there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friends. Even if we never see Motoko, or his deceased son in person, their presence over the film is still felt, and it’s meaningful for me. The implications are that he matters as not merely an innocent citizen but a sacrificial hero for the sake of our country.

It manages to be universal. Because Black Rock could be the stand-in for any such towns. In this particular instance, it’s about a Japanese man. But in other stories, he could be any marginalized individual. The hateful frenzy of The Red Scare is too fresh to disregard any type of allegory in that context.

This type of bigotry and incensed racial (or political) hatred is not a thing of the past. It disadvantages many types of people by conveniently terming them “other” from the accepted subset of society.

What always fascinates me in history and in the stories we excavate is finding the people who faced this abhorrent reality and willingly pushed against it. Still, others initially accept it with apathy. It’s the path of least resistance. However, even they are forced to make a stand, lest they continually bury their conscience and grow miserable.

Bad Day at Bad Rock is about precisely these types of people, and it takes all sorts. So the beauty of it is that we can enjoy its utter intensity and the mystery at its core. It keeps its secrets close and only divulges them at opportune moments. The dialogue too is sparse and measured.

But seething under the surface is a commentary framed by a none too flattering portrait of America. It stands as a testament to fear leading to hate and hate leading to violence. There’s this sense of full-blown conspiracy and holding onto each other’s secrets because we’re all implicated.

If we are to break the chain, it’s imperative to band together in opposition and bring all those dirty secrets into the light. The greatest gift Spencer Tracy gives to this picture is not brawn but the unwavering sense of integrity — in his acting and in that iconic face of his. In a world of shady two-timers, his candor is something we can trust.

4/5 Stars

Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars

Johnny Guitar (1954)

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“I’m a stranger here myself.” ~ Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar

In watching even only a handful of Nicholas Ray films, it’s possible to discern fairly quickly that his films are often about the marginalized outsiders. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the most iconic example but this theme goes a lot further than that single movies. He even plays with the same ideas in Johnny Guitar his extraordinarily distinctive western from 1954.

There are other westerns that open like this. A stranger (Sterling Hayden) riding through the mountains and making his way to the nearest town. He overlooks a stagecoach robbery going down and miners blasting away at a mountain with dynamite. There must be a purpose to it all but the significance fails to resonate quite yet.

He goes to the local watering hole: Vienna’s. Except there’s no one there. It’s a ghost town. There are only a few solitary figures working the roulette wheels and the bar. No one else. But still, the stranger walks in as if he’s meant to be there. We don’t know why yet.

By all accounts, Sterling Hayden wasn’t much a cowboy but he had the presence of one. In the movies sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the eponymous Johnny Guitar, the man with his instrument strapped to his shoulder with little stake in the local goings-on.

Namely, the grudge match brewing between the hotel’s fierce proprietress Vienna (the always cutthroat Joan Crawford) and fiery western lass Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who packs a whole posse of cattlemen including ornery John McIvers (the venerable Ward Bond). It doesn’t help matters that Vienna opens her doors to the despised Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies.

We, like Johnny, have no particular stake in their quarrel though there is a sense of some past grievances. In fact, everyone seems to have a history but we are hardly ever given a nibble, never through flashback and rarely in exposition.

Nicholas Ray creates a gorgeous world in color that showcases some of the most attractive imagery of the West in Classic Hollywood on par with The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). And it boasts an equally colorful array of characters including quality supporting cast members like Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.

But the subversion of all norms begins with Joan Crawford, the woman who loves the sound of the roulette wheels spinning, ever severe, packing a six-shooter in her blue jeans. While the TruColor does much to enhance not only the scenery but her performance as her piercing eyes burn through everyone she stares down. Johhny Guitar might be in our title but Vienna is our undisputed star.

The relish of the film is perfectly rendered by the complete lack of clarity initially. It’s trying to get a line on everyone in an attempt to understand what’s going on as their allegiances are made fairly evident. It’s a matter of picking a side. But the sides are incredibly difficult to decipher. In fact, even in her moments of complete innocence, it helps her character that Crawford very rarely comes off as a sympathetic person — in reality or on the screen. So if she’s our protagonist then we’re in for a tough outing.

Of course, the feud that’s central to the tale was also twofold unraveling on both sides of the camera. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford loathed each other to put it lightly. They probably wanted to tear each other’s hair out and while not the most benevolent of relationships, it undoubtedly stoked the fires of the film’s drama. In fact, it seems like there weren’t many people who did like working with Crawford. Hayden never wanted to be in another picture with her again either. Still, once more, it all functions in front of the camera exquisitely.

There’s certainly some truth in drawing up parallels with George Stevens’ Shane (1953) but the moral lines are a lot more jumbled and the intentions of the plot far less direct. Shane is a success because it’s a fine piece of classical storytelling still underlined with an imminent threat. Johnny Guitar is beguiling because it breaks with all the conventions of the West while still carrying its own amount of subtext that’s hard to figure.

Should we even care that the posse gets these men? But you see, that’s nearly beside the point. It’s not about right or wrong but this muddled center controlled by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The man and the woman with a bit of a past but not enough that they will fall into each other’s arms and live a faithful life at one another’s side. That’s just not in their nature. Still, riding the fence proves to be a taxing ordeal.

We witness the most peculiar bank robbery as far back as I can remember committed by the local outlaws who until they ran off with the loot hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, in spite of being despised by a whole town. In other words, they played the roles expected of them. Then, a pair of hangings takes place but instead of your typical unrepentant criminals being strung up, you have a kid and a woman both ending up with a rope around their necks. The enforcers’ stomachs begin to churn uneasily. This isn’t how mob justice is supposed to work.

Subsequently, the battle to subdue the frontier is brought home with the most unconventional showdown in the western canon that’s fundamentally also one of the most stunning. It blows up in your face and then leaves you questioning this entire ordeal.

Peggy Lee’s title track is used to sing them out as one final note in this dazzling western courtesy of Nicholas Ray; dazzling for the very reason that it does everything contrary to what we have learned. It continually makes a conscious choice to upend the accepted script attached to the mythology of the West, rewriting its own narrative full of vivid imagery and equally blistering outcomes.

4.5/5 Stars

Marty (1955)

ae98e-marty_film_posterStarring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, this heart warming story is about an Italian butcher in New York. He is nice enough but he is the oldest in his family and the only one not married. Soon with the concerned questioning of his mom and the droll of his social life, Marty gets discouraged. However, after reluctantly going to a ballroom he meets a girl. She is shy and not beautiful but she and Marty immediately hit it off. Marty’s mom does not really like her and Marty’s friend Ange thinks she’s ugly. He is initially deeply affected by this but then he realizes his happiness is what really matters. Soon enough he is on the phone with his girl. This is one of those film good films and it seems to go against the usual Hollywood mold.

4.5/5 Stars

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

8435a-bad_day_at_black_rockStarring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan with Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger, and Anne Francis, the whole story takes place in an isolated desert town. Tracy as the one-armed man Macready comes to the town and soon is face to face with many cold, detached, and suspicious folks. He has his own reasons for being there so that he can find the father of a Japanese-American war buddy of his. He asks around and no one is willing to talk. Macready soon realizes their secret and understands how much danger he is in. However, with the help of a couple of townspeople he is able to resolve everything. Then, he leaves town aboard the train just as calmly as before. This film intrigued me for a number of reasons but especially since a central topic was racism towards Japanese-Americans.

4/5 Stars

From Here to Eternity (1953)

b0508-from_here_to_eternity_film_posterDirected by Fred Zinnemann, the film has an all star cast including Burt Lancaster, Monty Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Clift is a former boxer and bugler who has been transferred to a post in Hawaii. The commanding officer wants to have him fight for the company but Clift is adamant that he will not. From that point on life is made difficult for him on the base. However, he still finds time to go to a club with his friend Maggio (Sinatra) where he meets Lorean (Reed) and falls in love. At the same time the intelligent company sergeant Lancaster, finds himself falling for the commander’s wife (Kerr) who has an unhappy marriage. However, he feels he cannot become an officer effectively terminating their relationship. The dramatic events culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor which overshadows a smaller tragedy. This movie certainly had a cast full of famous people, but I have to say it was not my favorite film. All the same there definitely are some good moments.

4/5 Stars