“Bad Day at Black Rock is a fairly conventional western whose opulence and star power conceal its mediocrity,”
is what I put down in my notes toward the end fo eh movie, thinking it’d bea nice quippy opener for the essay, aand then I felt vindicated about that opener when I read in David Thomson’s book, Sleeping with Strangers, that the movie doesn’t hold up for a second viewing.
But now I feel like I need to rein myself in. cuz this Project’s not about reviewing shit. I’m doing this to learn.
So I’m not a big fan of Black Rock but I am a big fan of Captains Courageous, and Adam’s Rib, and probably, it’s safe to say, just of Spencer Tracy in general as a leading man; and so it was neat to see him here for what’s surprisingly just his third appearance on the List, gray-haired and gruff and quiet, and in the same way that I feel I need to check myself with respect to why I embarked on the Project (to learn, not to criticized) I’m wondering if there’s something lacking from the List’s portraiture of Hollywood history by having so few films involving some of its biggest stars. How many movies does it take to give a solid sense of a performer’s abilities?
Tracy plays a one-armed WWII vet who’s come to the small desert town of Black Rock looking for a guy named Komoko.
That setup, right away, is mysterious and interesting, and the beautiful Cinemascope camera work seems to forecast some sprawling action and emphasize the isolation of these guys who appear, off the bat, to be at odds with one another.
But it doesn’t really live up to that.
There’s an unspectacular but emotionally gratifying flash of action between Spencer Tracy and Ernest Borgnine in a bar (can’t really call it a bar fight) and an interesting appearance of a Molotov cocktail. (It’s interesting to see Borgnine in this schlubby unremarkable role, knowing he wins an Academy Award in 1956 for Marty, which was in theaters at the same time..)
But otherwise it’s pretty tedious. There’s a dependably engaging supporting performance by Walter Brennan (who’s good here, but not quite so charmingly avuncular as in Red River and To Have and Have Not), and Tacy himself is solid. But the movie reels the viewer along with two lines of intrigue:
- What is this stranger looking for?
- What are the townsfolk hiding?
We get the impression hat the two questions will have the same answer; and, once it’s resolved, the movie revolves around how the hero is going to escape from the town after unveiling the secret.
But the first two thirds of the movie just have Tracy going around asking questions, they’re trying to build up an eerie, quiet, secretive mood that was established almost instantaneously. It seems to feel that these vague questions are enough to hold an audience’s interest.
I don’t think they are.
So, the lesson: the fact that the character is interested in knowing something doesn’t mean that the audience is gonna be interested in learning it.