Blog Directory CineVerse: Singing the Black Rock blues

Singing the Black Rock blues

Thursday, September 27, 2018

How do you build an effective action film without much action? Turn it into a whodunit western thriller and cast Spencer Tracy in the lead role as a deceptively strong and resourceful protagonist on a mystery mission in a small town where nobody wants him around. That's the recipe at work in "Bad Day at Black Rock," and it cooks up a pretty tasty stew for audiences to savor. For further proof, here's a summary of our major CineVerse discussion points from last night:


  • The ugly legacy of xenophobia and racism 
  • Our civic duty to stand up for the oppressed, bullied and outnumbered 
  • The dangers of crowd conformity and not thinking for yourself. 
  • This film is considered by many to be a subtextual criticism, like High Noon was, of the McCarthy communist witch hunts years earlier that resulted in many people being unfairly ostracized and blacklisted to little public objection. 
  • The movie also represents one of the earliest indictments by Hollywood of the way Japanese Americans were interred and unfairly treated during World War II. 
  • The Riding the High Country film blog suggested a further theme: the nature of the west itself. “When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterized by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices – an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.” 
  • It’s essentially a contemporary western, in which you have the man in the white hat who vies against men in black hats within a very small, undeveloped frontier-like town. 
  • It’s also essentially an action film, yet there’s not much action or violence to speak of. 
  • It’s interesting to see, during the postwar 1950s, considered by many nostalgic types to be a golden era for America, a movie that isn’t afraid to point the finger at deeper social issues, like racism, morality and guilt for our nation’s past actions. 
  • The movie ratchets up the tension effectively by limiting the viewer’s knowledge and by establishing a whodunit thriller: we don’t know why, until later, Macreedy has arrived at Black Rock, and we don’t know what’s happened to the man he seeks or who is responsible for him disappearing. 
  • Arguably, the film is effective because it’s lean and brisk; it’s only 81 minutes long, and the filmmakers don’t waste time on superfluous subplots, romances, flashbacks, or otherwise. 
  • You could make a case that Spencer Tracy is miscast here due to his older and pudgy appearance and the fact that he’s not known as a tough guy action hero. 
    • Others would contend, however, that this is nice casting against type that’s both refreshing and unexpected. 
    • Also, Tracy’s visage is considered by many to be one reflective of our nation’s collective morality and conscience. Consider how Tracy’s characters are often imbued with higher moral authority in movies like “Boys Town,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and others. With this admirable baggage, he’s ideal to play this role. 
  • The widescreen aspect ratio was a smart choice to demonstrate visually how desolate this Bad Rock setting is and how isolated Macreedy is within any given shot he appears in. Note that this was one of the first pictures by MGM to be photographed in CinemaScope, so it was a relatively new format. 
  • High Noon—another film featuring a solitary man pitted alone against formidable foes and another veiled allegory for the Hollywood blacklist and the McCarthy communist witch hunts 
  • Platinum High School—which revamps the basic story as a cautionary tale about juvenile delinquents 
  • Yojimbo 
  • Billy Jack 
  • Conspiracy 
  • The Magnificent Seven 
  • The Great Escape 
  • Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 
  • The Eagle Has Landed 
  • The Old Man and the Sea 
  • Last Train From Gun Hill

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