Thursday, January 12, 2017

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK: Blu-ray (MGM 1955) Warner Archive Collection

In 1947, an eastbound train carried with it the seeds of change for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; at one time considered the Cartier of all film studios. As an interesting aside, although MGM movies from this particular vintage bore an end credit that read ‘Made in Hollywood U.S.A.’, Metro’s back lot was actually located in Culver City, CA, thus rendering the point moot. Loew’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck could forgive this oversight. What he found increasingly impossible to overlook was the fact MGM’s once Teflon-coated reputation as ‘the king of features’ had been steadily eroded by mogul, Louis B. Mayer’s Victorian prudery; also, Mayer’s slavish devotion to telling gentile little family stories elegantly. In an era when audiences went to movies almost as much for a certain studio’s style as they did based on the drawing power of the names of its stars plastered high atop a theater marquee, MGM had a reputation for extravagance and quality; also, for star power. Of the top ten box office draws in America, seven were then currently under an exclusive contract to Mayer’s dream factory. Alas, with the silencing of the guns after WWII, audience tastes began to shift from the kinds of stories that pleased Mayer. Worse, Mayer seemingly lost his verve to oversee daily operations; dividing his hours between work, a new romance and possibly his greatest love of all; acquiring a stable of highly prized thoroughbreds. 
But on that particular cold and drizzly afternoon, with the train hurtling down the tracks, MGM’s fate was arguably sealed when its parent company President, Nicholas Schenk caught the ear of Isadore ‘Dore’ Schary; a staunchly liberal jack of all trades with a checkered past in the movie-making biz. With stints Columbia and Metro, by 1933 Schary was in an enviable position, albeit as a lowly screenwriter working under the tyrannical Harry Rapf. Mayer, a dyed in the wool conservative, never cared for Schary’s liberalism, though be could not argue with his success after Boy’s Town (1938), a project repeatedly shelved and almost discarded, went on to win Schary a co-writing Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, earn Spencer Tracy a much deserved Best Actor Academy Award for his formidable portrait of Father Flannigan and fill Metro’s coffers to their rafters. To say Dore Schary’s appointment to Metro’s top brass was badly done is a bit much, particularly since he continued to write and produce pictures of distinction, some of which invariably continued to turn a handsome profit; Joe Smith, American, and, Journey for Margaret (both in 1942), and, the quintessential ‘family film’, Lassie Come Home (1943) among them. Yet for all his merits, Schary was a bit of a pontificating poop, walking out on his contract – arguably, ‘on principle’ – after Mayer refused to green-light his passion project, Storm of the West. Apparently, Schary did not ascribe to the age-old adage of never biting the hand that feeds. Thus, from this point of embarkation Schary drifted; first to Selznick and his little-known indie division – Vanguard – followed by a move to RKO where, arguably, Schary was most at home; at least, until his autonomy was usurped by millionaire, Howard Hughes, who bought the studio, lock stock and Schary in 1948.  In accepting Schenck’s offer to return to MGM under a renegotiated contract (effectively giving him as much – if not more – clout to make life-altering decisions for the company), Schary likely overlooked the fact Loew’s wily New York President had ulterior motives.
Indeed, Schenck had wanted to stick the hypothetical knife between Mayer’s shoulder blades ever since the latter had used his connections in Congress to thwart a corporate takeover of MGM by William Fox back in the mid-thirties. The deal was not so much hostile as openly sanctioned by Schenck and Mayer’s ability to shoot it dead in the water despite Schenck being the company’s president had left a sour taste behind. Then, as now, all the stockholders cared about was dividends and the winning combination of Mayer and his V.P. in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg were then unstoppable. Mayer, in fact, was handsomely rewarded for these efforts, becoming the highest paid executive in the United States for years yet to follow. A tidal wave of profits engorged their coffers at a time when virtually all the other major studios were struggling merely to keep their heads above the high water mark of the Great Depression. But now, Schenck had the upper hand. Mayer’s lavishly appointed postwar attempts to regress Metro back to those halcyon days before the war had miserably flopped. Costs were up and profits down; the perfect storm for Schenck’s insistence Mayer accept Schary as his new V.P. Mayer tried to convince Schenck he would do just as well to hire back his son-in-law, David O. Selznick who, like Schary, had worked for the company in the mid-1930's and had great successes. But Selznick, long since an independent – and still enjoying his autonomy – absolutely refused even to consider ‘coming home’. From the outset, Mayer and Schary did not get on and on June 22, 1951, Dore Schary suddenly found himself occupying Mayer’s front office in the Thalberg Building at MGM; the ousting of Mayer by Schenck creating a seismic shift that sent shock waves not only around the back lot, but throughout the entire industry. “The name of the company is not Metro-Goldwyn-Schenck,” director, Stanley Donen astutely pointed out, “It’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”; completely overlooking the fact indie producer, Samuel Goldwyn had been the first of the fledgling company’s ‘founding fathers’ to find himself on the outside looking in, in 1924 when MGM officially began operating as a corporate entity.
In some ways, director John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) represents the pinnacle of Dore Schary’s tenure at the studio; the bleak ‘B-picture’ Schary so obviously preferred to MGM’s otherwise lush and lovely escapist fantasies, herein tricked out with an A-list budget, Cinemascope, 6-tracks of stereophonic sound and a bombastic score by André Previn. Interestingly, the picture opens with a train too; the arrival of mysterious one-armed man, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) causing a curious tension to permeate through the ramshackle remote desert backwater of Black Rock. Bad Day at Black Rock is precisely the type of movie that, in its own time, seemed impossibly out of step with MGM’s edicts of ‘do it big, do it well and give it class.’ Despite his natural abhorrence of Mayer’s star system (indeed, Schary would do everything he could to trim what he perceived as the unnecessary fat from Metro’s top-heavy roster of top-tier talent), Schary nevertheless adored Spencer Tracy, whom he regarded as “the finest American actor ever to appear in movies.”  And Tracy, a consummate pro, delivers on all accounts herein; his craggy visage capable of conveying monumental thoughts, emotions, ideas and even action with just a flick of his eyebrows or those cool, critical eyes suddenly darting off in a particular direction. Tracy’s acting style is so natural it can almost be called minimalist. There is so much going on behind the eyes his portrait of wounded masculinity on the cusp of regaining confidence is riveting from start to finish; a tour de force for a star who, arguably, never gave a bad performance, despite appearing in some questionable fare along the way.  
Bad Day at Black Rock straddles an interesting chasm between old and new Hollywood; Spencer Tracy, decidedly a holdover and main staple of the old home guard, entering his emeritus years as the resourceful seeker of truth in a town with far too many lies to keep successfully hidden. Tracy holds his own opposite the already well-established (though today, largely forgotten) Robert Ryan (as the murderous Reno Smith, who crumbles into rank cowardice in the picture’s third act), as well as then up and comers, Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble – a real goon) and Lee Marvin (Hector David – blood-curdling cruelty personified). There is a tenuous, nerve-jangling animosity at play throughout the movie, its one misfire, arguably the miscasting of Anne Francis as Liz Wirth as the too naïve for her own good ingénue, looking as though she has just stepped from the Central Casting salon; quaffed, upscale and decidedly out of place in this craggy wasteland, overrun by some very bad men. Bad Day at Black Rock takes Schary’s concept of the gritty RKO programmer and elevates it with A-list accoutrements – an odd, though decidedly salvageable fit. Tricked out in Cinemascope, with Andre Previn’s main title demonstratively pouncing forth from six tracks of vintage stereo; a passenger locomotive hurtling toward the expansive bleak vistas caught in the camera’s lens; it all gives the illusion – or rather the promise – of a big and splashy actioner to follow. Yet, the events unfolding immediately thereafter from a screenplay by Millard Kaufman (itself, based on Howard Breslin’s story and Don McGuire’s adaptation) are remarkably subdued; pitting Metro’s built-in prestige against some truly bone-chilling xenophobia.
Schary had tackled this subject before; though only as B-unit B&W at RKO and in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with Crossfire (1947) employing the claustrophobic noir style to evoke a certain dread. In the broad light of day – and in widescreen and stereo no less – the effect might so easily have become overblown, even silly; too much clearly delineated dead space to the left and right of center, leaving the audience wondering what all the fuss was about. Yet, Bad Day at Black Rock increasingly reveals itself as an ardently alarming existentialist’s masterpiece, long before probative existentialism in the movies was in vogue. Like the western heroes of yore, John R. Mcreedy rides into town destined to affect social change. Yet, he hardly enters this isolated enclave with a cowboy’s ‘yahoo’ mentality, diverging further still from direct comparisons within that genre by being both well past his prime and astride the iron horse instead of his own steed; also, by being a cripple (an unfashionable moniker today, but fittingly applied in the fifties to anyone deprived an essential limb afforded them at birth). Miraculously, the loss of Mcreedy’s arm has little emasculating effect on the man. In fact, he repeatedly proves, with manly finesse, to possess more ingenuity and physical prowess using the one good arm he has left, to effectively withstand the town baddies and, on more than one occasion, subdue them with physical force, though (in keeping with the hallmarks of his creed) only when provoked. Mcreedy is a mensch; albeit, one who takes no guff and can survive on wits alone when backed into a corner. And he will need all of these faculties to triumph over the thug muscle jockeying for power in Black Rock.
Bad Day at Black Rock marks director John Sturges’ 23rd year in Hollywood, his tenth as a director with already 20 movies to his credit. Like Schary, Sturges preferred gritty realism to the glossy sheen of then traditional film-making, cutting his teeth on a string of lucrative B-budget programmers; arguably, his best, 1950’s moodily lit police/procedural detective/thriller, Mystery Street – costarring Ricardo Montalban and Sally Forrest, with a memorable turn from Jan Sterling as the B-girl who pushes her married lover too hard and pays dearly for it. Throughout his tentative years, Sturges illustrated a genuine knack for solid storytelling; also, contributing real style on an oft’ minuscule budget to have hamstrung most any other director into succumbing to a work-a-day mentality, simply to get the damn thing finished. Bad Day at Black Rock really is Sturges’ first opportunity and hurrah to play with all the bells and whistles of an A-list studio in an equally as plush production, and he illustrates a very keen camera eye for imaginative compositions; often situating his actors in deliberate poses to heighten their shifting positions of power within the story, almost entirely avoiding the POV shot, yet with a distinct depth of field that utilizes multiple plains of reference in the foreground, middle ground and background. You really have to pay attention to Sturges’ approach because he cleverly avoids drawing obvious attention to his craftsmanship; the placement of scenery and the stars possessing a graphic naturalness we readily take for granted in widescreen movies today, but as yet unaccounted for as the dreaded close-up in most early Cinemascope movies.
Among its other attributes, Bad Day at Black Rock contains some stellar support from its bit players who run the gamut from seasoned veterans, Walter Brennan (as the caustic Doc Velie) and Dean Jagger (thoroughly emasculated sheriff, Tim Horn) to then newcomer and rising talent, John Ericson (as Liz’s brother and hesitant hotel proprietor, Pete). Brennan and Jagger are the old campaigners here and their years of experience show in darker, more psychologically wounded portraits of careworn, browbeaten men, full of self-loathing and disillusionment. Doc fights back, an inspiration to Tim who, having succumbed to the bottle long ago, barely remembers how. Yet, Ericson is the real standout here; and arguably, the genuine disappointment for showing such genuine promise in this, and a few other big budget Metro projects of the fifties before being relegated to television work for the rest of his thirty plus year career. In one of those Hollywood ironies that befell a good many contract players like Ericson, his name today has been practically forgotten; denied the luxury of longevity in Hollywood’s overflowing wellspring of talent. The thirties – even the forties – might have transformed Ericson into a bona fide star. Alas, the fifties were a time of financial retrenchment for virtually all of the studios and their steady, slow, and very sad decline. Thus, Ericson’s career aspirations were repeatedly derailed. The freelance market is not conducive to career longevity and Ericson’s trajectory would prove, with time, no different and no less disheartening. In Bad Day at Black Rock he illustrates an intuitive inner strength desperate to emerge from under an outer shell of rank cowardice. It is a nuanced bit of play-acting, extremely well thought out and a real asset to the production as a counterbalance to Spencer Tracy’s unflinching man of moral integrity. While Mcreedy is always the image of forthright steadfastness, Ericson’s Pete Wirth is a young buck of latent qualities on the cusp of becoming a ‘real man’.
Bad Day at Black Rock is set in 1945, one-armed John J. Macreedy getting off a passenger train at this isolated desert hamlet and almost immediately raising the curiosity and ire of its town folk unaccustomed to having strangers in their midst. Indeed, the conductor lets it be known no train has stopped in Black Rock in the last four years and, arguably, for good reason. Black Rock can hardly be called a town – perhaps not even an outpost; its one main thoroughfare just a ramshackle of huts and storefronts leading to nowhere in particular. From all sides, the place is surrounded by a sandy abyss and craggy mountain rocks. In truth, Macreedy has no intentions to stay either. He is merely looking for an Asian man named Komoko (whom we never see); to return to him a medal of honor earned by his late son, killed fighting for America in WWII. Macreedy is, at first, unable to comprehend the open hostility he encounters in town. Marginally he is amused by Pete Wirth’s claim there are no vacant rooms for rent at the hotel he manages. Exactly who is occupying any of them in this one horse town remains a mystery.  Macreedy is also mildly amused by the intense hatred exhibited towards him by locals, Hector David and Coley Trimble. Least imposing, though nevertheless meaning business is Reno Smith. As per Macreedy’s inquiry to locate Komoko, Smith coolly informs him that as a Japanese-American, Komoko was interned in a camp for the duration of the war.
It all might make sense, except that Macreedy is not buying any of it for a moment. Instead, he decides to make further queries at the Sheriff’s office; soured to find Tim Horn a careworn rummy with zero interest in helping to further his claim. Doc Velie, Black Rock’s veterinarian/undertaker advises Macreedy to clear out immediately. But before that, he also lets it slip Komoko, whose home is located not so far off in Adobe Flat, is quite dead. With no more details forthcoming, Macreedy hastens to rent a jeep from resident mechanic, Liz Wirth. He drives into the forgotten wilderness, arriving at the burnt out shell of a small shack; wild flowers adorning a nearby well. Although not for certain, it does not take long for Macreedy to reason foul play at work; a suspicion confirmed when Coley, who has tailed him to Adobe Flat, attempts to run Macreedy off the road. Back at his hotel, Macreedy encounters more threatening opposition from Hector, who has let himself into Macreedy’s room. The men size one another up. But Hector is too cunning to react. Mcreedy and Reno have their first real confrontation. Reno tells Mcreedy he would be wise to clear out on the next train. Mcreedy suggests he intends to do precisely that; but then ups the ante by also hinting he knows Komoko’s body is buried somewhere on Adobe Flat. Reno expresses his rank hatred for all Japanese; inexplicably married to his own failure to enlist in the Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For Reno, Komoko is a painful reminder; worse; a bug to be squashed, though particularly when no one is looking.
Unable to procure another rental of Liz’s jeep and sincerely concerned for his own well-being, Macreedy tries to quietly telephone the State Police. Regrettably, all long distance calls go through the hotel lobby; Pete alerting Reno, who refuses to put the call through. Next, Macreedy tries to sneak through a telegram at the train depot. This too is intercepted by Hastings (Russell Collins), the telegraph operator, shown to and vetoed by Reno. It now becomes apparent to Macreedy, not only is he isolated in Black Rock, but Reno and his men never intend him to leave. At the local diner, Macreedy’s meal is sabotaged by Hector, who dumps too much ketchup into his plate. Now, Macreedy is openly threatened by Coley as Hector and Reno look on. But Coley has underestimated Macreedy’s ex-military preparedness. Thus, when Coley tries to attack Macreedy using brute force he is instead promptly beaten into submission, incurring Hector’s considerable ire, but Reno’s distinct – if curious – satisfaction. The cripple has guts. Moreover, he is an admirable foe with hidden talents Reno can respect. Returning to the hotel, and angry for the first time, Macreedy confronts Pete for being a coward. Doc rallies Tim to his side and reveals to Macreedy the heinousness of the town’s dirty little secret: that Reno took it upon himself to torture and then murder Komoko simply because of his Japanese heritage; trapping the poor frightened man in his shack and setting it on fire. When Komoko emerged burning Reno ruthlessly shot him dead as Hector, Pete and Coley looked on. While Pete was sickened by the murder, he has remained silent and cowering ever since; arguably, not only to preserve his own safety, but equally Liz’s, who is in love with Reno.  
Realizing Macreedy’s fate has already been decided, Doc offers him his hearse as a getaway vehicle. Regrettably, Hector rips out the distributor cap and spark plugs. Doc demands Tim take a stand as the sheriff. It is certainly within his discretionary powers to do so. Alas, enfeebled by alcoholism, Tim is no match for Reno, who now strips him of his badge and authority; giving both to Hector. Reno further reveals to Macreedy the telegram he gave to Hastings was never sent. It’s hopeless. Macreedy is going nowhere. After their departure, Macreedy reveals to Doc, Pete and Tim that until his arrival in Black Rock he had wallowed in self-pity over the loss of his arm. Indeed, Komoko’s son died in combat - a real hero of the war, saving Macreedy’s life. Now, Macreedy has been reinvigorated to stand up and fight back in peace time. With Tim and Pete’s complicity, Doc hatches a plot to get Macreedy to safety under the cover of darkness. Luring Hector into the back of the hotel, Pete feigns a query as to Macreedy’s fate, allowing for Doc to sneak up from behind and knock Hector unconscious.
Pete also gets Liz to agree to drive Macreedy out of town, presumably to safety. Instead, still naïve and ever loyal to Reno, she drives Macreedy into a remote canyon in the wilderness where Reno is waiting for an ambush. But Liz has miscalculated Reno’s devotion to her. She knows too much and Reno ruthlessly shoots her dead as Macreedy takes cover behind the jeep. Filling a glass jar with gasoline drained from the jeep’s undercarriage, Macreedy hurriedly creates a Molotov cocktail, hurling it at the rocks near Reno. The explosive ignites and Reno is subdued; charred, though nevertheless still alive to face criminal charges. By dawn’s early light, Macreedy returns to Black Rock to turn over Reno to the authorities. He informs Pete of his sister’s murder and departs on the noonday train presently pulling into the depot. For the first time since his arrival, the residents of Black Rock reveal themselves; presumably, good people frightened by a few tyrants now removed from their self-appoints seats of authority. Doc requests Komoko's medal to stand as a beacon of hope for the community. Seeing no reason to hang onto it any longer, Macreedy gives the medal to Doc, boards the train, and departs Black Rock for the last time.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a sublime nail-biter; a morality play efficiently sheathed in the trappings of a would-be actioner with more brains than brawn on display; the chest-thumping kept to a bare minimum by Spencer Tracy’s particular brand of authority as it slowly, but steadily begins to tower, then take precedent over the outmoded use of bullying force holding dominion over the town; depicted herein as boorish, wasteful and destructive, equally to one’s own self-preservation as that of the entire community it seeks to keep under its unprincipled rule. Bad Day at Black Rock is the ‘message picture’ done right; providing entertainment with a capital ‘E’ and message with a small In years shortly to follow, Dore Schary’s verve for such ‘message pictures’ would bring about the end of MGM’s reign as the undisputed ‘king of features’ in Hollywood. It would also put an end to Schary’s affiliation there. Deprived of his finger-pointing to Mayer as his arch nemesis, Schary was increasingly forced to accept responsibility for the lumbering, top-heavy, mismanaged corporate structure he now presided over with little more experience than that of an impatient middling exec, eager to see his own re-envisioning of Metro’s product up there on the screen. Although Metro’s balance sheet in 1952 would show a profit, by 1955 Schary was merely treading water, his decision to revamp and launch several franchise TV serials including The Thin Man and MGM Parade (both licensed to ABC) the same year as Bad Day at Black Rock had its theatrical debut, foreshadowing the real end of MGM’s glory days. One year later the axe would fall, Schary putting into production the badly received (and at $1.9 million, very expensive) Forbidden Planet and the even more elephantine misfire, Raintree County (released in 1957 and, at $5 million, the most expensive movie ever made until that time on American soil).
Typical, the Warner Archive (WAC) is batting a thousand with this Blu-ray release. Bad Day at Black Rock is a reference quality affair with one minor caveat – more on this in just a moment. The transfer has been struck from an interpositive derived from an original negative and it looks fabulous beyond expectation. As is usual, though nevertheless increasingly extraordinary for vintage deep catalog releases in hi-def, exceptional care has been taken to restore and remaster these 60+ year old elements. The Eastman Color looks pretty spiffy; bold, rich and vibrant. The mesas are appropriately burnt umber and the scorched landscape looks affectingly petrified. Flesh tones are spot on. The image has received a major face lift. There is really no comparing it to Warner’s old DVD release. Density and grain sparkle as they should.  Prepare to be impressed. Just never take releases like this one for granted. Under George Feltenstein’s tutelage, WAC has shown great foresight in their custodianship of the classics. We owe them a debt of gratitude. The one oversight, through no fault of their own; the original 4 track magnetic stereo has not survived. What’s here is a 2 track stereo, but I have to add, it’s as potent and crisp as I would expect, with some very clean dialogue and Previn’s score sounding as aggressive as ever. Top marks! One extra: Dan Polan’s DVD audio commentary, and a trailer in HD. Ho-hum. Could’a, should’a, would’a done more. Bottom line: Bad Day At Black Rock is required viewing and this Blu-ray gives us the movie looking decades younger and more revitalized than ever. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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