Monday, February 15, 2021

Always a good day for a Bad Day

I have only recently been introduced to the joys of streaming movies. My internet connection previously had not even realised the 21st Century had dawned. In fact, for a long time it only had a nodding aquaintance with the 20th.

Despite my new-found, new-fangled connectivity, I still much prefer DVDs and Blu-Ray for my movie watching pleasures. I like a disc, I like to see them on a shelf, I like them with extras.

Many of my purchases in the past year or two have been of an older vintage. Not that I think of them as old, mind you, but you young folk out there will. It’s not that they used to make films better, because there was a lot of dross back then (as there is today). But it is true that they regularly made films that stand the test of time.

Well, at least to old fogeys like me.

I want to focus on one of them today. It's a thriller, you could call it crime, and it is an absolute winner.

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a title that slid into common parlance in the Skelton household when I was working for a living to mean a helluva day at the office. And there was a vast number of them thar days, let me tell you.

Spencer Tracy was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1955 for this movie, directed by John Sturges, who later went on to make ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘The Great Escape’ and other classics. Apparently, this was his favourite of his own films.

In case you haven't seen it:

Set just after World War Two, Tracy plays John J. Macreedy, a one-armed man in a black suit who arrives in a dusty western town by train. The locals, personified by Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and others, are suspicious and they make their views plain. Macreedy is in no hurry to tell them why he’s there and that makes them even more distrustful.

Naturally, this is a town with a secret, a particular nasty, dark one, and they don’t want it to be revealed.

Just as naturally, Macreedy is there to do just that. Although he doesn’t know it.

I love the film, simple as that. Despite the 1950s streamliner trains and the cars and the telephones, it is a western, which appeals to me. As one of the characters says:

 Somebody's always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historians, it's the "Old West." To the book writers, it's the "Wild West." To the businessman, it's the "Undeveloped West." They say we're all poor and backward and I guess we are. We don't even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West. And I wish they'd leave us alone.’

But it’s also a thriller and a bloody good one. It hit screens on the back of a slew of quite dreadful red-baiting movies, made as both studio heads and stars sought to curry favour with the House UnAmerican Committee investigating the red threat to US society.

Like ‘High Noon’ and other films of the period, it drew on that hysteria and used it in the story-telling.

But as I was watching it, I began to think about how it would be treated if remade today. We have hysteria. We have suspicion and racism (one of the themes of the film, by the way).

The quick answer is, I believe they would ruin it.

It runs at a tight, taut 94 minutes so the first thing they would do is push it up to over two hours. However, the running time is fine as it is. The story is told with economy and speed and a fair amount of wit, courtesy of screenwriter Millard Kaufman. That wit is something else that might be sacrificed today.

Of course, they might prefer to make it for TV, and stretch the story out to eight episodes by adding all sorts of dark, and frankly unnecessary, subplots. Darkness is the name of the game now. And, generally, a big soggy patch midway through the series. Yes, even the much vaunted first season of ‘True Detective’.

In the film, Tracy tells the always watchable Walter Brennan – one of the few locals to help him – why he is in town. It involves a debt to a dead man stemming from an incident during the war.

Now, if they remade it, we would have to see that. The star, whoever he was, would insist on it to establish his character. We would have to have a flashback, showing how that debt came to be due but in the film we just hear about it. And that’s all we need. We don’t need to see Macreedy in action, being wounded, being saved from death by the man. Because, in the scheme of things, that is not integral to the action in this little dusty desert town.

(Tracy and Brennan were on different sides of the political spectrum and did not get on at all during filming. Tracy was a liberal, Brennan a conservative and at one point communicated with each other through John Sturges. Ah, the magic of the movies!)

There is a celebrated fight scene between the one-armed Macreedy and local heavy Ernest Borgnine during which the former knocks lumps out of the latter using karate, or judo, or some sort of martial art. By today’s standards it looks tame but in 1955 this was something. Even the Production code raised its eyebrow, believing the use of the martial art was somehow unheroic.

At one point, Borgnine is knocked through a door. What Sturges didn't tell him was that the door had been nailed shut so that it was more impressive when he crashed through. The stunned look as he stood up was real. John Sturges said the actor never forgave him for it.

If that scene was shot today, the Macreedy character would be required to take on ALL the bad guys at once, and beat them. Preferably on a staircase.

Incidentally, Borgnine pipped Tracy to that Academy Award for his role as ‘Marty’.

Similarly, the climax is little more than a night time showdown between Tracy and Robert Ryan. Today, he would have to vanquish half the town. Maybe even blow it up for good measure.

These days we can’t have our hero simply take down one guy, it has to be an entire army. The outlandish antics of the super hero and (in my opinion) gaming characters mean that young audiences will not accept the simple mano-a-mano, unless it’s wrapped up in some kind of CGI way.

Yes, I know – I’m just a crabbit old man, saying they don’t make ‘em like they used to. I don’t have a down on modern cinema – I enjoy much of it. I believe there are many decent movies being made.

But they really don’t make films like Bad Day at Black Rock anymore. Not with this kind of understated story telling. They don’t even make that many thrillers now, which is a shame.

OK, I’m ready to watch it again. This time with the commentary.

I’m old, but I can geek with the best of them.



Anna said...

Don't forget the special effects, perhaps during the "martial arts" sequence or the gratuitous blowing up of the town.
I saw it at a drive-in with a blind date I couldn't stand. Must see again, now in better times. Thanks for the nudge.

Douglas Skelton said...

Yes, there would be cgi all over the place! There is, however, a car chase in the desert that could be done better - not with cgi but practically - but allowances have to be made for 50s techniques.Hope you enjoy it better the second time around.

Susan D said...

Yup.One of the classic openers...

A stranger comes to town.

Caro said...

I hope there's a shady blonde in it some where !

Douglas Skelton said...

Caro, there is a blonde, played by Ann Francis, and yes, she is kind of shady.

Douglas Skelton said...

Susan D, yes, indeed. And still used today.