Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) ****

NR, 81 min.
Director: John Sturges
Writers: Millard Kaufman, Don McGuire (adaptation), Howard Breslin (story)
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande

“Bad Day at Black Rock” is a lesson in minimalist cinematic storytelling. From its plot to its dialogue to its motivations to its sparse desolate landscape, there doesn’t seem to be much going on here. Through that minimalism we get a detailed study in human nature that is far superior to any heavily plotted, emotional rollercoaster ride out there.

Spencer Tracy plays a man who arrives on a train in Black Rock. It’s a train that hasn’t stopped in the isolated town for years. He’s looking for someone, but is treated with suspicion and hostility from the moment he steps off the train. There is a secret the towns people have to hide, but their behavior is more like something that is just second nature to them rather than serving any real purpose that they’re aware of. They don’t like strangers. The man could be anybody. They’d treat him the same. It doesn’t matter what he wants or what he’s looking for. They’ll assume he’s there to change or even destroy what they have.

It’s almost surprising to me that such popular stars as Tracy and Ernest Brognine, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin could populate such a sparse film. It’s strange stuff, yet it’s so simple. It’s as if the film itself is saying about movies and human nature, “This isn’t rocket science.” People will fear what they don’t know. People will assume the worst. People will resort to cruelty before understanding. It’s simple, but it’s oh so good.

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