Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

2012 #47
John Sturges | 78 mins | TV | 2.55:1 | USA / English | PG

Bad Day at Black RockBad Day at Black Rock comes with an air of the forgotten classic — or, at least, it did to me. I think that’s important to how I ultimately reacted to it. As is that wherever I first heard about it pitched it as a suspenseful mystery with a twist. I forget where that was now, but I remember consciously avoiding finding out the plot’s developments (more so than one naturally would anyway) before viewing.

The latter seems to pay off, at first. Spencer Tracy stars as Macreedy, who arrives in a tiny, remote town in the American West, shortly after the end of World War II. He’s there with an unrevealed purpose; the locals are, for some reason, immensely suspicious of him. Starting here, the story is built on slow suspense and mystery: who is Komoko? What happened to him? How does Macreedy know? And what does Macreedy want? Sturges happily lets this mull and build over the best part of an hour, before suddenly darting past the reveals as if they’re unimportant. I’m not saying they need to be sign-posted with dramatic camera angles, weighty overacting and thudding “dun-dun-DUN!” music, but they’re shoved in here as if they’re immaterial; a bit of bookkeeping before the all-action climax. Perhaps these reveals weren’t meant to be so vital to the story as I had been expecting, but it still undermined my expectation.

The film also raises issues that, in my opinion, it fails to adequately explore. Primarily, the American attitude to the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and also notions of complicity and complacency in the face of crime. There’s room for these threads to be explored and commented on, to be better exploited than they are. I don’t think it’s an issue of subtly (that is to say, that they are present, but without a heavy hand), more that they’re only fleetingly touched upon. Perhaps that’s unfair — I’m entirely upon to the suggestion that I was so busy focusing on the mysteries, Chatting at Black RockI missed the commentary. Indeed, in his piece at Riding the High Country, Colin notes that the issue of American reaction to the Japanese “is very obviously presented”. (He also examines the film’s representation of a third area, that of Bad Day… as a modern Western and by extension a commentary on “the nature of the west itself”, which as ever I heartily recommend.)

I’ve read that Spencer Tracy was reluctant to star (presumably because of the arguably-anti-American stance of the film), but he nonetheless gives an engaging Oscar-nominated performance, perfectly embodying the character’s odd mix of qualities. He’s authoritative yet acquiescent, disruptive yet quiet, placid yet can hold his own in a fight… In a film otherwise marked by its consciously single-note townsfolk, he makes an intriguing creation.

The most underused character by far is the only woman, Liz, played by Anne Francis, who is vital to the climax but barely has any screen time before that to make us care. Most of the other cast are served at least one scene which is ‘theirs’, in which we get to learn about their archetypal character and their piece in the town’s make-up and secretive past, but third-billed Francis is robbed any of that. Considering the film barely runs 80 minutes as it is, I can’t help but feel there was room to dig into her character a considerable amount more.

Under-used AnneFor a film so based in mystery and which has what I’d call a methodical pace (despite its short running time), there are surprisingly good action sequences to look out for: a car chase/battle along a thin path, a one-handed punch-up in a bar, and a climactic shoot-out that’s at its most tense once all the bullets have been fired. It’s not an action movie by any means, but these cinematic sequences stand out nonetheless.

I imagine I’ve come across as harsh on Bad Day at Black Rock. As noted, I’m not sure where I specifically heard it recommended — several sources, more than likely — but wherever it was made it sound like an under-appreciated minor classic, with a mysterious setup that specifically appealed to me. So perhaps that’s why I’m disappointed the mystery element wasn’t as foregrounded, and why I’m niggling at the ways it could have explored its own content better. At the very least, it leaves topics of consideration open for the audience to debate amongst themselves, and that’s never a bad thing.

4 out of 5

Bad Day at Black Rock is on Film4 today at 5pm, and again on Thursday at 12:40pm.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

2010 #63
Stanley Kramer | 104 mins | TV | PG

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a white girl falls in love with a black man and brings him home to meet the parents. You can almost imagine this premise still being launched today, as one of those dreadful ‘comedies’ Hollywood pumps out every year, in which the parents are outrageous racists — played by some ageing stars who should really know better — and one of the young couple is a bit accident-prone and played by someone like Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler.

Thank God for the ’60s, then, when such a plot meant this was a brave film to make. Lest we forget, this is still the era of Martin Luther King Jr. battling for equality (he was assassinated while the film was still in cinemas) and when interracial marriage was still illegal in 14 states (though that was ruled unconstitutional between filming and release). Hollywood may be known for its liberal (in US terms) politics, but it’s not always so, which makes the outcome of the film — will they or won’t they be given permission to marry? — a constant guessing game.

To write off this genuine uncertainty of outcome — a factor that’s quite rare, now and then, I think — as just a product of the film’s era is distinctly unfair, however. The Oscar-winning screenplay is truly excellent. Taking place over just a few hours on one day, it’s effectively just a series of conversations between various people (no wonder it was later turned into a stage play), but there’s never the sense that that’s all it is. The characters are fully three dimensional, thanks to the writing and excellent performances from every cast member, though Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn is the stand out.

It could easily have been a simplistic message movie — these people are liberal, these people are racist, etc — but instead there’s complexity at every turn. There’s the liberal white parents who never expected to find themselves in this situation, and suddenly are struggling with their own ideologies; or the black characters, who you might think would be eager to move ‘up in the world’ but actually react even worse to the idea; or the Catholic priest being one of the few characters unwaveringly in favour of the union. And even then, these characters could just become ciphers for the arguments and debates; but they’re not, they’re characters, having believable reactions, and from this comes the debate.

Funny, dramatic, emotional, romantic, thoughtful, intelligent — there’s little more you could ask of a film. Exemplary.

5 out of 5

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is on BBC Two today, Sunday 3rd August 2014, at 2:40pm.