Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Eighteen, Part Two: ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955)

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The Premise
Film fanatics and friends
 Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. There has been a few disagreements, a few mutual pleasures, but mainly there has been a cinematic education of sorts for both.

The film at number eight in Fred’s list is a modern Western, generally considered a masterpiece of suspense. Surely Yasser can’t argue with that… can he?

You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.

To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.

Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
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Fred: My number eight is ‘Bad Day at Black Rock

Yasser: Why, Fred? Why?

FS: (laughs) A very highly regarded film by those who’ve seen it, but not that well-known. It was probably the first mainstream Hollywood movie after World War II to tackle the subject of anti-Japanese feeling in America. I thought that might appeal to you, given how many of your choices tackle racial or tribal tension

YA: It’s more of a background thing, though. The story revolved heavily around something that had already happened

FS: Yes. An unseen event in the history of a small town in the middle of nowhere

‘Bad Day at Black Rock’
1955 – USA
Director: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin

YA: So, what is it about this movie that brought you to choose it in your top eight?

FS: It’s probably the best non-Hitchcock thriller of the 1950s. It’s a really tight piece – 80 minutes long – with a tense build up to an exciting climax. The writing is excellent, with well-rounded characters despite the short running time, and it has a terrific cast of actors who all suit their roles down to the ground. Centrally, is that man Spencer Tracy, who I know didn’t wow you in ‘Inherit the Wind‘, giving a brilliantly measured performance. It’s just a smart film

YA: I think you and I were watching two different films

FS: What was the problem?

YA: Oh my giddy gosh! Where to start? For a thriller, it wasn’t very thrilling. It was slow, considering the run time. Some of the cast, especially Anne Francis and her dolt brother (John Ericson), were annoying

FS: Pete (Ericson) was supposed to be a bit of a plank

YA: I guess he didn’t miss a beat, then. (laughs) Fred – I don’t want to offend your taste, but I have to be honest. It felt like I was watching one of those afternoon movies that Channel 4 play before ‘Countdown

FS: That is not an insult. That’s one of the few slots on TV that shows any decent movies. Daytime on Channel 4 and BBC2 is the only time films older than ‘Dirty Dancing‘ get air time

YA: This one is a travesty

YA: Do you really think it was fast-paced?

FS: I wouldn’t say it’s fast-paced, but it’s not slow. It’s not an action movie, it’s more like a detective story

YA: I understand. There’s many films that don’t have high-octane action sequences that I enjoy

FS: Really? (laughs)

YA: Hey, man! I’m not one of those people to turn a film away because there’s no action in it

FS: No, but I think a film like that would struggle to get in to your top 25. What was the single biggest fault with ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’? If you HAD to pick one

YA: It just wasn’t gripping, Fred. It struggled to keep my interest. I believe that so soon after the attack on Pearl Harbour this film would have been something that would attract movie-goers, but I fell asleep twice

FS: That’s quite a damning review

YA: My friend, I’m struggling to understand why you like this film. What moments stand out for you?

FS: The opening credit sequence is quite stirring. The music’s good and the overhead shot of the train is quite spectacular. Then there is Tracy in his blue suit and brown fedora – personally, that is quite an iconic image. There is also the combination of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as the heavies. I love them both.

YA: Okay. Anything else?

FS: The fight between Tracy and Borgnine is probably the most memorable moment, but there are other great scenes, such as when Marvin takes over Tracy’s hotel room, Tracy’s initial arrival at the hotel, and the final confrontation out in the desert

YA: Spencer Tracy was the best person in the picture. He was constantly being confronted, just for asking questions, and he stood his ground without being confrontational. He does that well

FS: John J. Macreedy (Tracy) is in a difficult position. He works out very early on that any sign of physical confrontation could be disasterous for him, being one-armed and all, so he pacifies the antagonistic townsfolk

YA: What I’m getting is ‘if you are a Spencer Tracy fan, then you will love this film’

FS: I wouldn’t say you have to be a super-fan, but if you hate him then you probably won’t like the movie

YA: I admit he’s a good actor. He’s not the most handsome man, but he does have an authoritative presence. However, he doesn’t have that charismatic attribute for me

FS: I’m disappointed you don’t appreciate him like I do, but I understand it’s a question of taste

FS: Let’s discuss the other cast members. The ringleader of the villains, Reno Smith, is played by Robert Ryan, the actor my mother hates more than any other. What did you make of him?

YA: Ryan did a good job. His disdain, though blinded by ignorant hatred, was believable

FS: At first he seems like he’s going to be a reasonable guy. He apologises for everyone else’s hostility, for instance, and tries to kill Macreedy’s interest in Komoko, the missing Japanese farmer, with kindness. When he realises Macreedy won’t be easily put off his task, though, he turns

YA: I hoped the film would get better as time went on, but it only improved right at the end when Macreedy discovers the truth about Komoko. Macreedy’s reason for looking for him was a clever twist. I didn’t see that coming

FS: Well, that’s something I suppose

YA: Of the rest, I liked Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger). I liked how he stood up for himself after being lethargic in his role as the town’s alcoholic lawman

FS: What about the aforementioned Borgnine and Marvin?

YA: There’s a moment where Trimble (Borgnine) is trying to run Macreedy’s car off the road. The expression on Borgnine’s face and the way the sequence plays, I thought it should have the Benny Hill theme tune in the background

FS: I think Borgnine is menacing in this

YA: It sticks out as something that hindered anything good about him. I did like Lee Marvin. He was awesome in ‘The Dirty Dozen‘ too

FS: He’s awesome in most things. I like how he is mean despite not being physically imposing, like Borgnine is

YA: He was good. I’m trying to grasp at straws here. The film was not good.

FS: Was there anything good, apart from the twist? I feel you are even being kind about the cast for my benefit, so let’s move away from that

YA: It was a promising idea. It has a good message behind it. I think the film would have been enhanced by a monumental leap if Komoko’s fate has been shown at the beginning of the film

FS: I can’t agree with you, because if you’d seen what happened in the first ten minutes it would have taken away the tension. You’d be fully aware what the townsfolk were capable of. Watching it as it is, you know Tracy is in trouble, but when you realise exactly how much trouble, it sets up the climax

YA: Fair point, but it still takes the menace away from it as it adds to it being a slow-moving story

FS: I see. You’re saying that when the reveal happens, you’ve already lost interest

YA: Yes. See, ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ has a few moments where you think it’s about to pick up, such as the scene between Marvin and Tracy in the bedroom, but it never does

FS: I really don’t think it’s slow. Every scene helps build towards the final section where Tracy has no choice but to make his escape. Anne Francis not hiring him the jeep, the telegram not being sent, Marvin sabotaging the hearse – every avenue is blocked, but he has to keep trying

YA: What is it about Spencer Tracy that makes him your favourite actor?

FS: Every actor, from Henry Irving to Olivier to Brando to Bale, is aiming for one thing – to be real. To be believable and natural to the point where you forget you are watching an actor. I’ve never seen an actor as real, yet so magnetic and compelling as Spencer Tracy. Nothing seems affected. There are no tricks. He should have won his third Oscar for this film in my opinion.

YA: I see what you mean

FS: He did make some bad films, but he rarely gave bad performances

YA: My last question is about the theme of the movie. The film centres around American communities and people’s prejudice after Pearl Harbour. Was there anything in that theme that draws you to it?

FS: I like the story, and I think it’s an interesting way to explore the stupidity of generalising a culture or race, but if the farmer hadn’t been Japanese, or if there was some other plausible secret the town was keeping I’d like the film just as much

YA: I’m going to rate it

FS: Okay – I’m ready for this

YA: Bro, there’ve been times you’ve made me watch films that left me angry as I felt I’d wasted my time. This was worse than that. It was so slow that I fell asleep twice. To compare this to Hitchcock’s thrillers is an insult to Hitchcock. ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ had Spencer Tracy going for it and a couple of other good actors, but there is barely a hint of excitement throughout. This is the poorest film on your list so far. I really don’t know what to tell you other than it was not good. 3/10 might be too generous, but I will give it that because of Tracy, some of the cast, the theme and the twist at the end.

FS: Okay. Promise me one thing

YA: Shoot

FS: That you will never, EVER watch another Spencer Tracy movie. 9/20 for the two you’ve seen is a big disappointment

YA: Okay, I won’t (laughs)

Next Week: De Niro and Pacino have coffee; Laurel and Hardy eat a hat

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3 thoughts on “Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Eighteen, Part Two: ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955)

    […] Bad Day at Black Rock […]

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    […] ‘All the President’s Men‘, ‘Bad Day at Black Rock‘, ‘Inherit the Wind‘, ‘Cinema Paradiso‘, ‘Wild […]

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