John Sturges, mostly famous for his two later rugged process-driven films, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, drew out a mostly forgotten niche of manly not-quite-action films. They weren’t really violent, but they had the soul of action entertainment in their braggadocio and mechanics-first brand of raspy storytelling. His two most famous films are given at least the repute of minor-classics, but he is not particularly associated with them. He was a man who worked with groups of talented actors, and they often dwarfed him in the final analysis, not because he was appreciably under-skilled, but because he always subsumed his skill to the mechanics of the narrative, and we as a society tend to focus on actors and narrative at the expense of directors. He didn’t have a truly unique style, so to speak, but he was an ultra-competent director, and arguably the ultra-competent director. And his competence never tipped over into out-right genius quite like it did in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Retroactively notable in relation to his later films, Bad Day at Black Rock doesn’t focus on a collective human goal (as his later more famous works would), and the narrative is much more straightforward at a core level. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) wanders into the desert-stricken limbo of Black Rock in the American Southwest with the equivocal task of searching for one Komoko, yet the town doesn’t want to budge about even acknowledging Komoko’s existence. Robert Ryan plays local gun-hand Reno Smith as a particularly slithering, backhandedly haunted villain. A vocal leftist in real life, Ryan often faced cognitive dissonance when he was frequently cast as bigots and traditionalists, but his inner-hate for the faces he donned as an actor manifested in supremely self-challenging, despicable, brutish performances; Ryan clearly enjoyed some aspect of making his villains as vile and grotesque as possible. Obvious Sturges pals Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine show up in supporting roles as none-too-welcoming rabble-rousers, and Macreedy soon realizes that the town doesn’t want him to find Komoko, nor do they want white men to have anything to do with the Japanese.
Sturges has a ball privileging Tracy in shots with a remarkable depth-of-field, typically with another slimy sort positioned just ever-so-visibly in the background, a simply but disconcertingly effective technique to establish the simple paranoia of wandering into a ghost town that somehow still seems to be watching you at every corner. Tracy, for his part, is sublime in one of his more challenging roles. Challenging, for one, because he has to play a blank slate in a lost world, and secondly, because he has to slowly reintroduce character traits to Macreedy over time without tipping his hand too much. Most of what we learn about him, we learn through subtle visual ticks like the flair of an eye, or the wounded gait with which he confidently walks.
Like any Sturges film, however, the characters are primarily meat for his larger goals: the perfection of mechanical filmmaking, where every shot and every cut combine into a corporeal whole that doesn’t necessarily reinvent the idea of art but nonetheless hits like a ton of bricks. Sturges would develop a habit of jam-packing his films in the 1960s, but Black Rock sees him charitably draw his camera toward emptiness. The characters are meat-bags, sure; they’re just particularly well reasoned and played meat-bags in Bad Day at Black Rock, given undue time to feel and gaze on in the sunset like mythic males rendered sour under Sturges’ unusually nihilist hand here. More than in his other densely packed films, where Sturges took the effort to elevate every little action to godlike import through skillful editing and framing, Black Rock has room to breathe.
Room to breathe which Sturges uses to invite choking. He kicks up mounds of dust with William C. Mellor’s parched, husky cinematography; together, they manage the convoluted task of first creating a wide open Western expanse where you could walk just about anywhere and secondly, and only secondly, filling that emptiness with wandering, prowling eyes and sun-scorched dryness that draws the life out of anyone who lives there. Like a great many revisionist Westerns, Black Rock uses Western iconography and posits that the wide open landscape was not a luscious canvas on which men could earn their American dream. Instead, it was a barren, infertile, arid land where men went mad with violence and oppression. The emptiness in Black Rock is not a marker of possibility, but of adversity, of the inability to keep secrets and walk anywhere without everyone seeing what you are doing. Humanity is laid bare by the wide-open Cinemascope frames (the kind that turn humans into unsuspecting specks on the screen) and the regimented lateral framing which cut through the longitudinal people like knives. So it’s a work of painful, almost esoteric mood, harsh and unreal as it elevates traditional Western iconography to modern society (the film is presumably set in 1955) not to show how much of a lie the Western truly is, but to share with a sigh just how little America had evolved from the Old West.
Yes, before you ask, it’s a message movie. A movie that met with confrontation and refutation when it opened the door to shine some light on the darkness of America’s oppression of Japanese immigrants during WWII, and the way this oppression was tied to a long history of Americana existing as a white bullet lodged into the heart of non-whites. The Western-ness of the piece, in particular, evokes both the brutality of white male Americans in the Old West, and the more trenchant fact that this film’s world has not meaningfully evolved from those Western days of old. It says, essentially, that modern society is the Old West, and that the Old West was an outdated value structure to have in any time.
So a message movie we have. But it’s a particularly muscular, almost hellish message movie that finds its message about America’s renegade racism in poetic, simple grace notes of action and a pointedly empty locale that has nothing to stand up vertically and hide the boiling racial hatred stewing underneath. It observes the individualist wilderness of American capitalism stamping out minorities for a quick buck, and it observes it without sentiment or cloying solemnity. It depicts a world free of emotion, because emotion, it reveals had been stripped out of America long before. And it finds a man in Tracy’s Macreedy who is desperately trying to return a little of that emotion through a small, simple act of goodness to a man who needs it.
He isn’t able to find this goodness, in the end, for America got to him before he could get to America. All that is left for him is to hunt those men that did Komoko wrong, to find his humanity in the only way Americans seem to know how: the endless cycle of violence. And Sturges, visualizing a screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman adapted from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, doesn’t for the life of him know what to do with this violence. All he can do is sigh, and his visual sigh of a film speaks volumes to a sort of post-War melancholy lingering deep below the new-found world power status of the US as a nation. We were trying to police the world, and we still are, but we never looked inward to figure out what that meant to us, and whether we could solve our own problems first. If more message movies were composed with the fluency and quiet burn of Bad Day at Black Rock, then maybe the genre wouldn’t be such a red mark on the record of cinema.