Walter Mencken 9:52 a.m., Aug. 1
DVD Rentals: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
John Wayne was always right, Larry Fine was always wrong, and Robert Ryan was always, always troubled.
The first on-screen appearance by the most distressed man in the annals of cinema was as an intern in the Bob Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers. This is as good a theory as any as to what set the rugged he-man on the road to turmoil.
Mr. Ryan, who built his on-screen reputation playing racists, rednecks, crackers, goofballs, and disillusioned vets, always displayed an uncanny ability to switch targets of hate as effortlessly as Fred Astaire changed partners. In Eddie Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947), Ryan not only had a gripe against Jews, he had no fondness for "anyone who likes Jews." He killed more "Injuns" than Custer, whom he later played, reeked of homophobia in Billy Budd, and it takes forever for Bob and Harry Belafonte to become pallys in Odds Against Tomorrow.
When a script doesn't specify a target of hate, humanity will do. In Fred Zinnemmann's Act of Violence (1948), the mere question of how long Ryan will be staying at a hotel finds the despondent actor instantly turning on the day clerk with a gut wrenching, "Oh...I don't know." In Caught (1949), his melding of fictional Charlie Kane with real life crackpot Howard Hughes gave Max Ophuls' normally uninhibited camera just cause to dolly out. Nick Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952) may be the most perfectly pitched Robert Ryan performance. His tortured psyche effects, infuses, and just plain annoys every character he comes in contact with.
John Sturges CinemaScope sermon, Bad Day at Black Rock tells the story of a mysterious one-armed man (Spencer Tracy) who makes an unexpected stopover in a berg so small it makes Bogdanovich's Anarene, TX look like a bustling metropolis. Given what Sturges shows us, the town is populated by Ryan and his band of goons (Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, John Ericson, Russell Collins), the town's neutral mortician/veterinarian (Walter Brennan), a neutered sheriff (Dean Jagger), and one babe, auto mechanic Anne Francis.The time is post-war America and Ryan's Reno Smith, frustrated and 4F, finally get his hands on a "Jap." Tracy single-handedly unravels the town's dirty secret and by my calculations, the only townsfolk left residing in Black Rock before the final credits roll are Brennan and Jagger.
The contented cut-out head of Bob Ryan appears to have been grafted on from the Bachelor Mother half-sheet.
Filmed at the dawn of CinemaScope, Sturges and ace cinematographer William C. Mellor do little more than exploit width. From the bug-eyed opening shot of the serpentine Super Chief barreling into town, to stringing characters across the screen in a manner best-fitting a police line-up, the filmmakers are interested in only one thing: how to populate the newfangled anamorphic width.
The plot plays out like a giant Golden Book wrought with themes of social significance, searing racial tension, and an overall sense of sticky self-importance. The righteous Tracy follows the same plot-trajectory fellow booze-buddy Bogie traveled in Key Largo, released by a rival studio seven years earlier. The embryonic message picture fulfilled liberal-minded producer Dore Schary's expectations by hammering home themes of morality and tolerance while managing to sell bucket after bucket of hot buttered corn.
Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire based their script on a story called Bad Day at Hondo by Howard Breslin. John Greco reports the title change came about "because the filmmakers did not want to confuse audiences with the John Wayne western Hondo released a couple of years earlier...Kaufman one day stopped for gas at a station in Black Rock, Arizona and a new title was born."
The Reading Eagle. February 10, 1955.
Tracy, who has no agenda beyond delivering a medal to the father of Komoko, the Nippon ally who saved his life, and whose life Ryan extinguished, plods through the role with steely determination. A prepubescent flat, black-and-white TV viewing eternally etched in my mind the confrontation between Ernie and Spence at the town's only eatery, the Chili and Bean. When the neighborly Borgnine seasons Tracy's bowl with a half-bottle of Heinz red-lead, the veteran star (aided and abetted by a primitive stunt double shot from the back) puts on a lighting display of Asian handiwork. Tracy's judo chops propel big man Borgnine with such force that he almost topples the painted studio backdrop.
Once again, numerous Best of CBS viewings have forever rendered this film beyond criticism. Normally, "important" entertainment, particularly when delivered in such a heavy handed manner, makes my skin crawl. What can I say? In spite of all the preachy prose and clumsy oblong compositions, the cast of supporting slobs is so appealing in their quest to pick on a white-haired, do-gooding old "cripple," that I can't help but revisit this picture at least once every five years.
This column is a revised version of a November 15, 2008 review from the now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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