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Sunday, July 10, 2011

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

John Sturges moved onto the A-list helming this chamber-sized, modern-day Western. A parable played on a vast & barren CinemaScope landscape, it’s a bit like HIGH NOON/’52 in reverse with the bad guys in town and good guy Spencer Tracy coming in on the Super Chief at the top of the story. Contrary to what you may have read, Tracy does not play a one-armed man, but a man with but one usable arm. Freed from having to strap an arm behind his back, Tracy simply tucks his left hand in a pocket and gets to work. The handicap isn’t given much prominence, but it’s always there in the way he balances his body and in the care he takes confronting an adversary . . . or a bowl of chili. For anyone who’s lived with a handicapped person, his performance is uncanny. (Anyone who hasn’t may wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn’t seem to do that much. Exactly.) In this compact story, Sturges finds the underlying menace in every shot as Tracy walks the small town, asking about a missing Japanese man and getting the cold-shoulder from just about everyone. There’s not much to uncover and both Tracy & the audience quickly figure out the basics, a man was killed and the entire town is either responsible or acquiescent. And while the film holds off on explaining why Tracy is looking for this man, the real matter at hand is in the character of the town. (And alongside the WWII xenophobia, smoldering societal changes brought out racial connotations in 1955 that explain Lee Marvin’s sneering references to Tracy as ‘Boy.’) Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both working under the malevolent thumb of Robert Ryan. are only the most directly threatening, the rest of the townies (Anne Francis, Dean Jaggar, Walter Brennan, John Ericson) are only better by degree. There’s little actual violence, but when it does flare up, it has meaning, consequence, and the technical precision of Kurosawa or Jean-Pierre Melville. No wonder Sturges made such a hit out of the Stateside adaptation of SEVEN SAMURAI/’54, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/’60.

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