Friday, May 22, 2009

Murder, He Thinks

Bad Day At Black Rock
Directed by John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Anne Francis, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan
Grade: C

Bad Day At Black Rock
is one of those films with a stiff upper lip. Its stolid structure is of the assured ilk that often meant success for the old, simple, effective melodrama, beginning and ending with a train passing through a town; a town embelished in apparent dark secrets and entombed mystery. The film surely pimps this mystery: a tale of a Japanese farmer in an isolated Western American town, who disappeared shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The maths are rational, and for all of the proposed enigma Black Rock rashly and bravely lays pretty much everything on the line. Spencer Tracy's investigative, disabled stranger (he is only capable of using one of his arms) saunters into the town of Black Rock like only Spencer Tracy can, stubbornly aware and remarkably resilient, and the reaction of the townsfolk to his entrance solidifies the vague presumption: Black Rock is a guilty place.

Tracy's attempts to coax the less narrow-minded members of the town to his way of thinking is rather like the task of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, with justice the ultimate goal. But while the courthouse drama dealt with appearance, logic, and politics, Black Rock feels more like a bad episode of Murder, She Wrote, with Spencer as the infallible Jessica Fletcher (or should that be the other way around?), sleuthing and smoothing his way through a murder investigation as if he'd lost a pair of slippers. All the more surprising then when he is roped into a fistfight with Ernest Borgnine, one-handed, and proceeds to make Uma Thurman in Kill Bill look wimpish.

Once Black Rock eradicates the mystery by making it plainly obvious what has happened, it turns into the kind of factional warfare that really requires more emotional penetration. Small-town politics are addressed through the bullying and intimidation of horribly standard villains; racism present but rarely explored beyond fleeting references to World War II. You can see how the town dynamic may have become so volatile, and you can even see the eery backstory of its demise, but the polarisation of morality that dominates Black Rock's final act is disappointing. The emphasis of brains-over-brawn and good-over-evil makes a routine operation out of what should be raw and powerful, fatefully absent of the scathing clash of beliefs that thickened 12 Angry Men. It could do with a bit of the sweat, too.


goatdog said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks this movie is horribly overrated!

RC said...

interesting --- i haven't seen this --- in fact, there are a lot of spencer tracy movies i would like to catch up on.

too bad this was less than super-impressive, it sounds like it could have been.