Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bad Day at Black Rock

TCM's look at Asian images on film, every Tuesday and Thursday in June in prime time, has up to this point been quite interesting. I hadn't seen any of the Sessue Hayakawa silents, or the Anna May Wong silents; seeing Wong in Technicolor was fascinating, and one of these days I'll get around to blogging about Piccadilly as well. Tonight brings another interesting selection: a movie that examines (white) America's views of Japanese-Americans without actually having any Japanese-American characters: Bad Day at Black Rock, airing at 9:45 PM ET.

The movie starts with John Macreedy (played by Spencer Tracy) getting off a train at a whistle-stop, the small, western desert town of Black Rock. From the very beginning, we see that it's a bleak place, with the wide-open vista of the background serving almost as a metaphor for the emptiness of the town. This is helped by the fact that it was one of MGM's earliest movies in the then-new widescreen Cinemascope. Macreedy, a one-armed World War II veteran (the movie is set in 1945), stops at the town's hotel, asking for a room and for directions to the farm of a particular Japanese-American farmer. Macreedy is coy about why he's here, and why he wants to see the farmer, but the townsfolk are equally coy about where -- if anywhere -- the farmer is.

From this, we can assume that there is a secret behind this Japanese man's non-presence. Not only that, but the presumption is that it's a dark secret, and one the whole town knows. Slowly, we're let in on these facts, as we learn about the town's dynamic and what is to them Macreedy's baleful presence. The leader, if you will, of the town is Reno Smith (played by Robert Ryan), sending out his minions: played by Ernest Borgnine who had already done a good job as a baddie when he played Judson, the sadistic stockade master, in From Here to Eternity; and Lee Marvin, who is as good here playing a more understated evil as he was displaying manic evil in The Big Heat. There are also those in the town who, as in High Noon, know that there's evil, but are either unable or unwilling to confront it directly; these include the sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, and town doctor Walter Brennan.

It's a bit tough to write a complete review of Bad Day at Black Rock without giving away serious plot points. However, Tracy is excellent playing what is essentially an archetypal character trying to do the right thing. He's clearly good -- and the movie makes it obvious that we aren't to have any other thoughts about him -- but at no time is Tracy ever preachy about it. Ryan, Marvin, and Borgnine do good jobs in their portrayal of evil, although being part of a basic good-versus-evil plot, they do eventually come a bit too close to the cardboard cutout stereotype of evil. Those caught more or less in the middle are quite good as well; one name I haven't mentioned yet is Anne Francis. The other good "character", if you will, is the setting; director John Sturges uses the open desert and the Cinemascope effectively in making the small town of Black Rock appear to be almost a world unto itself.

Bad Day at Black Rock is available on DVD as well, in case you should miss tonight's showing on TCM.

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