Another Day in Black Rock

badposterIn most film history books, the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen processes is attributed to the studios’ attempts to counter the rising popularity of television.  Making the big screen bigger was one strategy to increase the level of spectacle in the movies, thereby luring audiences back to the theaters, along with color, stereo sound, and gimmicks like 3-D. Early films exploited widescreen by including casts of thousands, as in The Robe, or by shooting in beautiful, foreign locations, as in Three Coins in the Fountain.

Despite the spectacle of casts of thousands in period costume, historical eras recreated via huge sets, or postcard views of exotic locales, some directors had difficulties with widescreen. The academy format had been perfect for composing in depth, but widescreen was not. Also, close-ups, which are so important in drawing audiences into the emotion of a character or scene, could look clunky in widescreen. It took some directors and producers a few years to get the hang of it.

Of course, there are always exceptions. A few directors excelled at the widescreen format, mastering the art of composing for width and ignoring the trend for spectacle. On Tuesday, January 14, at 10pm, TCM will air Bad Day at Black Rock, one of my favorite CinemaScope movies. Director John Sturges eschewed the trend toward larger-than-life spectacle by offering a stripped-down drama set in an unappealing, dilapidated town with a minimal cast. Sturges did not need spectacle to make his film visually dramatic; he used composition and mise-en-scene. For those reasons, I selected Bad Day at Black Rock to show in my History of Film class this semester to represent the 1950s.

Most movie-lovers have probably seen Black Rock many times, because it airs frequently on TCM, but repeat viewers will make the perfect audience tomorrow night. Having fore knowledge of the story means you are free to direct more attention to the way the compositions enhance tone and meaning.

THIS SHOT OF THE REFLECTION OF BLACK ROCK IN THE BACKGROUND HINTS THAT THE PEOPLE ARE LIKE THE TOWN: EMPTY, BARREN, AND ISOLATED.

THIS SHOT OF THE REFLECTION OF BLACK ROCK IN THE BACKGROUND EQUATES THE PEOPLE WITH THE TOWN: EMPTY, BARREN, AND ISOLATED.

Spencer Tracy stars as John J. Macreedy, a one-armed veteran who arrives in the remote desert town of Black Rock, which hasn’t seen a visitor for a long time. Isolated, barren, and run down, Black Rock is the kind of town you leave, not deliberately visit. He is searching for a Japanese-American farmer from the area, but the townspeople are not only unhelpful, they are downright belligerent. As Macreedy tries to track down the missing farmer, he begins to realize that the inhospitable residents are hiding something. The dry, empty landscape almost overwhelms Black Rock, accentuating the town’s isolation and its age. The people are an extension of the setting: They look like hold-overs from another era; their lives are empty and their souls barren; and their isolation has made them out of step with the realities of the contemporary world. Though Bad Day at Black Rock is over fifty years old, its depiction of how a small town can atrophy without industry, commerce, and the re-invigorating power of diversity is relevant to the small towns across the Midwest suffering from the loss of industry.

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Sturges and his cinematographer, William C. Meillor, composed their shots with precision and deliberateness, particularly while the mystery is unfolding.  Several compositions suggest the contrast between Macreedy, who is all alone and in real danger, and the townspeople, who stick together out of loyalty or fear. Macreedy is sometimes shown alone on the deserted streets, his black suit contrasting with the tans and greys of the environment (above), while the conspirators are paired together or composed in groups of two or more (below). Sometimes the set design comes into play as when Macreedy is in the doctor’s office. A coffin looms behind him as the characters converse, suggesting a possible dire fate for the stranger.

badgrouping

Some shots of the townspeople, who are led by Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan, are carefully arranged so that your eye is led through the composition in a specific direction. This is known as creating an eyepath. Some of the best compositions in Bad Day at Black Rock occur in the scene in the hotel lobby: In the shot below, Lee Marvin’s character is the dominant element, because our eyes are drawn to him first. His downward stare directs us to Tracy, and then our gaze moves to the characters behind him, who pull our attention to Dean Jagger. Jagger looks toward Ryan who faces Marvin, bringing us back to the starting point.  Composed for width, not depth, this shot not only directs our attention to all of the players but also hints at their level of authority, or lack thereof. The weak characters recede into the background, while the bullies square off against Macreedy. The composition, in which Ryan is behind Marvin, also suggests that it is really Ryan (as Reno) who is behind the dirty tactics of Marvin’s character.

badgrouping2

The idea of who has power or control is often telegraphed by composition or camera angle. In one famous shot (below), Reno towers over Macreedy. His stature is reinforced by the vertical gas pump, while the color red stands out like a warning light to suggest the danger or threat that Reno holds.  Black Rock looms behind Reno, who is the man with the power in that town.

badtracyryan

As the mystery unfolds and Macreedy begins to put the pieces together, he becomes trapped by his circumstances and aware of the danger. However, he never reveals to Reno and his cohorts that he is cornered; conversely, Reno and his cronies maintain a faux pleasantness with him. In other words, the dialogue doesn’t necessarily fit the realities of the situation, at least in the beginning. The truth of Macreedy’s predicament is telegraphed through compositions that “trap” him between two or more townspeople, or corner him against the frame (below). The technique adds to the film’s suspense.

badsaloon

Figure blocking, composition, and set design make up a film’s mise-en-scene, which is a fancy word for its visual design. While most viewers don’t notice these details as they watch, they still guide or manipulate the audience’s perception and understanding of the characters and action. That is why film scholars and critics call the visual techniques of filmmaking a language. Viewers immediately understand these techniques and all their connotations and nuances without having to think about them—like they immediately understand a sentence spoken to them without having to consciously work through what each word means. John Sturges understood the power of a simple technique such as figure blocking to pull the viewer into the film and create suspense. That is why I would trade all of this decade’s expensive, effects-laden blockbusters by the Jacksons and the Snyders and the Singers for one more movie by John Sturges. Bells and whistles are no substitute for good filmmaking.

20 Responses Another Day in Black Rock
Posted By Ben Martin : January 13, 2014 3:11 pm

I’ve appreciated this movie before but you have helped me to appreciate it even more. Well done.

And how cool that this is the film you are showing to represent the 50s to your film class.

This is probably sacrilege, but Spender Tracy’s casting has always bothered me a bit. He was a very old looking 55 years, and though I know the point is to show that hi character is very vulnerable in this movie, outnumbered, etc., I just don’t buy that he can flip tough guys to the floor with his one good arm. (James Stewart, maybe? Gary Cooper? Van Hefflin? Henry Fonda would have made an interesting choice.) But I know its probably just me.
FBM

Posted By robbushblog : January 13, 2014 3:44 pm

Ben- I think that’s part of the point. They seem to think they will be able to push him around. He’s old, he’s nearly crippled, he should be easy to push around. Despite the fact that they keep calling him “a big man”, they think that they won’t have any problems with him.

I love this movie so much. Thanks for writing about it. Now I’ve got to watch it again. I bought it on DVD years ago as soon as I found out that it had been released.

Posted By Vienna : January 13, 2014 5:04 pm

Love this movie . Great review and pictures. Superb cast and locations.

Posted By Heidi : January 13, 2014 5:37 pm

Great movie and even better post! I have seen it so many times, but will be sitting and watching it tomorrow, or recording it so I can watch it later, and will be paying attention to the “language”. as an aside, I have always loved Robert Ryan, he just makes me happy-no matter haw dark and bad his character is.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 13, 2014 6:28 pm

Am so glad this film has so its fans. I hope my students will like it this semester. And, thanks for the nice comments.

Posted By Doug : January 13, 2014 7:25 pm

A great post for a great movie, which I will need to watch again.
Susan, I can see why you would use this film in your class. In the picture above where king Ryan sitting on his throne surrounded by subjects, his red ball cap is dead center in the frame. The others wearing fedoras and cowboy hats fade into the background.
I was impressed by Anne Francis; this was a grim story, and her character’s presence made it more palatable.
As for Spencer Tracy-not all soldiers in WWII were 19 year old kids. I reasoned that when we entered the war, John Macreedy would have enlisted even though he was middle aged.
Susan, another movie came to mind, where a stranger comes into a small western town, which is the tonal opposite of “Bad Day At Black Rock”. Do you like “7 Faces of Dr. Lao”? I love it.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 13, 2014 7:35 pm

Doug: Dr. Lao comes up ever so often on the Morlocks blogsite, but I have not seen in since I was a wee lass. I will try to catch it the next time it is in rotation on TCM.

Posted By swac44 : January 13, 2014 8:56 pm

I was thinking about CinemaScope only yesterday, after being lucky enough to catch a big screen showing of Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957) at our local multiplex. It was digital projection, but from a good source, and still had some film-like texture in the image. Deborah Kerr looked absolutely breathtaking. But there’s some great use of the wide screen in the film, like the scene where she’s shown exchanging knowing glances with Cary Grant, at first in close up, before there’s a cut to show them at opposite ends of the screen. Brilliant shot, and amazingly it’s McCarey’s first time working in the wide format, returning to the screen five years after his 1952 flop My Son John.

Posted By gregferrara : January 13, 2014 9:07 pm

One of my favorite movies of the fifties, maybe all time. A great film and a great write-up. Thanks for this great analysis, Suzi!

Posted By kingrat : January 13, 2014 9:57 pm

What Greg said! BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is an excellent film. I’d love to hear how your students respond to it.

Tell your students that what they learn about composition in your class will help them in art history class as well, because the filmmakers learned perspective from the great painters.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 14, 2014 3:43 pm

Great post! BDaBR was one the tentpoles back in the early days of TNT when it was essentially TCM, and we had a great theme night called “One-Armed Wednesday” with “Westbound” and one other I can’t recall.

I need to watch this again!

Posted By 5w30 : January 14, 2014 6:14 pm

In the broadcast industry, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is shorthand for something bad at CBS. CBS HQ building in NYC, made of black granite, dubbed “Black Rock” in the ’60s, after “30 Rock” for NBC. Some wags called the ABC HQ building, then at 1330 6th Avenue in Manhattan, “Hard Rock” due to their then lousy ratings and an allusion to their radio stations’ music programming.

Posted By david hartzog : January 14, 2014 10:44 pm

Excellent post, will keep these things in mind when I rewatch the DVD.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : January 15, 2014 1:20 am

the best “David and Goliath” scene in movie history is when Spencer Tracy Judo flips Ernest Borgnine through a screen door,while Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan look on in stunned amazement…it’s the heart of the movie…don’t mess with a guys chili ;)

Posted By jbryant : January 15, 2014 7:20 am

swac44: Wow, where do you live that shows digital prints of classic films like AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER at a multiplex? ‘Cause I will move there right now.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : January 15, 2014 8:21 am

One of my favorite movies of all time. I love Robert Ryan and I think it’s one of Spencer Tracy’s best performances. Your article helped my understanding of the movie’s visual composition and “amen” to your last two sentences.

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2014 10:23 am

jbryant: It’s a national Canadian chain, Cineplex (I’m in Halifax, NS), and they frequently have screenings presented by a company called Front Row Centre, which also presents opera from The Met, live concerts via satellite and other events on their screen. One of their regular events is a monthly classic that gets screened a few times over the course of a month, although their definition of “classic” also includes titles like The Big Chill and Tootsie.

Although I’m pretty stoked for their Digital Film Fest that’s happening at the end of this month, if only for the chance to see two James Bond classics — Thunderball (the first Bond in the wide 2.35:1 ratio) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — on a big screen.

But I’d love to be able to see more CinemaScope titles the way they were meant to be seen, I wonder what the last title to use that iconic logo would have been?

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2014 10:29 am

Google tells me the last films actually shot in CinemaScope were In Like Flint and the Doris Day/Frank Tashlin spy caper Caprice, both in 1967. Not sure if they used the logo at the start or not.

Posted By Marco : January 16, 2014 4:58 am

How many movies had as many stalwarts as this one? Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan, and Dean Jagger all acting in the same movie as Spencer Tracy as the only man in Black Rock without an obvious moral flaw. And Tracy’s character is the only man in the movie with an obvious physical flaw, which was the result of honorable service in the defense of his country. And he is in Black Rock to find the father of a Japanese-American soldier who died in Italy while the denizens of this bleak outpost of bigotry were killing his father for being a foreigner. Lots of contrast between the locals and the outsider. I really like the way the train enters and leaves Black Rock, sort of like a powerful force of nature. The scenery of the desert side of the Sierra Nevada has never been filmed to better effect.

Posted By jim : August 2, 2018 1:16 pm

Does anyone know the type of hat that Spencer Tracy wore in Bad Day at Black Rock?

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