Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock ★★★★★

"You look like you need a hand."

A one-armed man confidently strides into a small town community, and it falls to pieces when its residents assume the worst of him—or that he knows the worst of them. Paranoia belying guilty conscience; suspicion belying shame. Only people who know they've done something wrong worry this much about someone they don't know entering their little society. Inclusion (in the community) as hidden exclusion (of the unknown outsider). A community desperately repressing its own past, waiting for someone to confess before it turns into a mob. A series of personal confrontations with the difficulty of making a moral choice, of accepting moral agency, and of redemption.

There's a real lost art in great 50's dialogue. There's so much double meaning communicated so effectively and so effortlessly in Bad Day at Black Rock that it feels like this is the golden age of saying one thing and meaning another—and, of course, of directing both camera and performance in such a way as to keep both meanings crystal clear for the audience. And what's more, all this great dialogue is spoken by a veritable who's-who of some of cinema's greatest character actors: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, Anne Francis, not to mention the leads Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan.

And it's just full of great little details, like the fact that the alcoholic sheriff is always found sitting in one of his own jail cells, imprisoning himself with his own denial (like Rio Bravo in its portrayal of trauma and repression and in its condemnation of the evils of alcohol, that magical potion of the western), and the way Komoko works perfectly for the film's context of post-WWII paranoia but also works in the traditional western context of racial hatred—and how this xenophobia extends even to the town's treatment of Spencer Tracy himself. The unwanted outsider who must be kept on the outside or else the inside falls apart. The savagery of the frontier never actually disappeared, it was merely integrated into the supposed polite society of modern civilization.

Really blown away by this one. Jumped straight into my top 10 westerns. Immediately rewatched with audio commentary from film historian Dana Polan, and it's not one of the best commentaries out there (there's a famous commentary for this that features Sturges himself), but it was just a pleasure to watch the film again.

"We're suspicious of strangers, is all. Hangover from the old days, the Old West."
"I thought the tradition of the Old West was hospitality."

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Note to self: it's basically No Name on the Bullet taken to its logical conclusion. The intruder is no longer a psychotic serial killer, but just a regular guy (who happens to be unknowingly poking into sensitive matters), and he causes the town to fall apart just as much.

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