Sturges: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

One of the great revisionist westerns, at eighty minutes Bad Day at Black Rock retains all the economy and brevity of the short story it was based on – Howard Breslin’s “Bad Day at Honda,” published in The American Magazine in 1947. Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay follows a similar narrative, opening in late 1945, with the mysterious arrival of a one-armed man in a remote western town. The man, who is played by Spencer Tracy, goes by the name of John J. Macreedy, but at first we don’t learn anything else, or whether that is his real name. Nor do we learn much about the town, except that everyone in it seems to be suspicious of Macreedy – and in on a secret that he has arrived to investigate and prosecute.

The first part of the film follows Macreedy as he arrives by train, checks into the hotel, looks around, and starts to ask about a Japanese-American resident named Komoko, who was interned in a camp during World War II. These scenes all play out in a kind of intensified real-time, not unlike High Noon, as if to summon a radical sense of the present through the cinematic genre most invested in the past. As Macreedy moves from person to person, a few figures start to become more prominent –Reno Ryan, played by Robert Smith, and Hector David, played by Lee Marvin, both of whom seem tied to a broader conspiracy, along with Doc Velie, played by Walter Brennan, who sympathises with Macreedy, but from a distance.

These early scenes feel like director John Sturges is trying to envisage the new west – what the western means in the wake of WWII, which is continually invoked as a point of reference. At one point, one of the townsfolk muses that “to the historian it’s the Old West, to the writer it’s the Wild West and to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West,” but none of those labels quite apply to the west that’s on display here. Instead, this is the west as a bundle of heroic American mythologies that has gradually deteriorated in the wake of WWII, leaving a curious absence in its wake – an absence that Macreedy spends most of the film traversing.

We first sense this deterioration in the credit sequence, which depicts the arrival of Macreedy by train. This is the first of several hyperactive depictions of automated travel in the film, and departs dramatically from the way trains are typically represented in classical westerns, where they tend to affirm the horizon perpendicularly, literalising the trajectory of our eyes out into the great distance. By contrast, this train trip unsettles the horizon, throws it off balance, dee to Sturges’ shifting perspectives, aerial camera, and refusal to ground the train’s movement in a single or stable sightline. In classical westerns, horizons were audible as much as they were visible, repositories of contemplative quietness, but Sturges also withholds this from the audience, setting the credits to a cacophonous mechanical motif, intercut with the whistle of the train, that prevents us from settling into any three-dimensional sense of space.

This makes for a stark contrast with the town, which is as still and quiet as the opening sequence is manic and loud. In another context, Black Rock might simply appear as a classicist western space, but after these credits its classicism feels uncanny – like a contrivance or performance that has been adopted to conceal a deeper agenda. After hearing nothing but the roar of the train and accompanying score, we’re suddenly alive to every small detail of ambient noise – as are the townsfolk themselves, since it turns out the train hasn’t stopped here for five years before Macreedy arrives, acclimatising them to a much softer soundscape.

This uncanny stillness and quietness produces a kind of western noir – an inversion of normal western sightlines, which suggest expansion and empowerment, into an eerie emptiness that evokes panoptic surveillance from all sides. Even the distant mountains appear to be casting a watching eye, while the town barely feels like a place in itself – just a constellation of paranoid sightlines dressed up in western garb, and only just dressed up at that, like a hurriedly constructed set that’s designed to give an impression of longevity and durability. This is a town with no intrinsic identity, no authentic sense of community. The only connective tissue the townsfolk have – all that makes them neighbours – is their shared paranoia, a collective hostile gaze that pursues Macreedy wherever he goes, whoever he converses with.

We start to see here a new understanding of the western as a vehicle for Cold War paranoia, with only the slightest veneer of American homeliness concealing a rampant anxiety about outsiders. Sturges doubles down on the stately sightlines and silences of the classical western, but he over-identifies with them too thoroughly, until they cease to be vehicles for nation-building – or reveal nation-building to be an exercise in paranoia, fear and exclusion above all else. While we do see the mountains in the distance, most of the spaces outside the town are hypothetical, notional, unformed – stripped of their normal western topology, as if everything we’re watching is a simulation put on for some nefarious purpose. It also feels as if people cease to properly or realistically exist when they move beyond the boundaries of Black Rock – including Macreedy, who initially says he’s en route to Los Angeles, but then admits that he’s heading even further afield, to “South America, the islands, somewhere to get lost.” Black Rock, for him, is the middle ground between realistic space and a more provisional spatiality.

Sturges captures this weird limbo through windows – windows framing vast shots of landscapes, but also anxious faces watching Macreedy’s every move. These windows are like ciphers for cinema, and widescreen cinema in particular, rendering the film’s splendid vistas inseparable from a paranoia that requires bigger and bigger canvases for its hallucinatory projections. The sheer scale of the landscape, and the sheer scale of this surveillance, suggests a sinister world that subtends the town, which quickly comes to feel like a fabrication, a fantasy, a Cold War simulacrum designed to lull us into a false sense of security – like the small town in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, or a Twilight Zone episode overlaid with the melancholy gravitas of the classical western, now translated into a minor key, turned into science fiction.

This notional sense of space bleeds into an equally provisional sense of time. The action seems to be set in the present, but there’s a pervasive sense of pastiche, as if all the characters are wandering through a film set, but don’t know it – or don’t quite know it. At times, we appear to be in an alternative history that’s been set in play by the end of World War II, which remains the only reference point, even as the plot grows more and more abstracted in its temporality.

That’s the perfect backdrop for Tracy’s mildness – his awry implacability. Over the course of his career Tracy perfected a kind of incongruous politeness, or offbeat etiquette, which was often used for comic effect, but which works brilliantly for suspense here. One of the townsfolk complains of Macreedy that “he pushes too easy,” and yet this malleability makes his presence even more unnerving, while also giving Black Rock license to fully assert itself. You might say that Macreedy exudes the calm and pose of a classical western hero (he especially recalls Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine) but again, in a minor key. In effect, he absorbs the strong, silent masculinity of the western, and turns it awry, channelling it out of the town, who are left with nothing but a paranoid drive towards surveillance in its wake.

Macreedy’s silence is also turned awry by his disabled arm, and the mystery around it. Gilles Deleuze observed that American cinema suffered a sensory-motor dislocation in the wake of World War II – especially when it came to male protagonists, who found sight and action dissociated in debilitating and disorienting ways. We see this dissociation quite acutely in Bad Day at Black Rock, since Macreedy’s arm tends to dissuade action, both from him and against him, disembodying the sight of the town as everyone watches him watching them. This dissociation extends to the horizon, which in classical westerns acted as a sublime affirmation of sight and action – a visual spectacle that encouraged heroic movement across vast spaces. Here, the horizon barely ramifies as an incentive to movement, since it’s entirely discorrelated from action, and cut off from the traditional western poses that once affirmed it. These western poses become oddly flaccid as a result, floating through the film with no real referent.

So thoroughly does sight absorb action over Bad Day at Black Rock that action seems almost supernatural when it does occur. Macreedy’s good arm, in particular, exudes a more-than-human ability, prefiguring Peter Sellers’ fragmented body language in Dr. Strangelove and (more distantly) the rise of action heroes after the Vietnam War and the resurgence of superheroes after September 11 – later complications of this primal sensory-motor trauma. For the most part, though, Sturges doesn’t focus on individual action, or on Macreedy’s arm, instead compensating for this impotent movement with wide shots of trains and cars careening through vast landscapes. All the major plot points are driven by train or car, while most characters in the town are defined via their proximity to car or train – starting with Macreedy’s arrival, and his subsequent effort to hire a car to investigate Komoko’s property.

Yet these car and train shots are too fast and manic to give any sense of human agency behind the wheel. Like the credit sequence, Sturges keeps his camera at a distance, and often shoots from the air, removing any sense of an actual human body in the driver’s seat (it feels right that there is no horseback travel). Instead of a human commanding a machine, we get a zany, anarchic, mechanised movement that bisects regular western sightlines, especially when Macreedy is driving, since he has to navigate unfamiliar roads with only a single working arm. The film thus alternates between disembodied sight and autonomous machines, with no space for traditional human agency in between, as Macreedy moves closer to Komoko’s fate.

Even before we arrive at the Komoko subplot, then, it’s clear that Bad Day at Black Rock is a prime Deleuzian text, explicitly attributing its sensory-motor dislocations to the impact of World War II, and then mediating them through the iconography of the classic western. That makes sense, since the western is the most conservative film genre, the genre that most affirms sensory-motor integration in its fixation on the horizon as a convergence of aspirational sight and movement. To look at a horizon, in the western, is to move towards it, while most westerns understand colonisation as commencing with a single, sublime, panoptic gaze. In lieu of that horizon, Bad Day at Black Rock provides us with Adobe Flat, Komoko’s farm on the outside of the town, and the events that preceded his death and disappearance.

These events eloquently cement this connection between World War II, sensory-motor disintegration and the conservatism of the classical western. On the one hand, we learn that Komoko’s son fought with Macreedy in World War II, and saved his life, only to die in combat himself. On the other hand, we learn that when Reno Smith, the town ringleader, was told that he couldn’t fight in World War II, he flew into a blind rage and got his friends “patriotic drunk.” They then killed Komoko, burning him alive in a house before concealing his corpse. At that point, “the whole town feel into the kind of settled melancholy” Macreedy sees now.

This is perhaps the most concise conceivable vision of World War II as a sensory-motor shock to American film– a dissociation of the very lexicon that Hollywood might have once used to process political trauma. Even (or especially) the remote distances of the western are here susceptible to the ripple effect of the war, culminating with a sublime standoff between movement and sight. As Macreedy tries to escape town with Liz Wirth, a local woman played by Anne Francis, he’s pursued by Reno, and ends up crashing his car. It turns out that Liz has been on Reno’s side, but he turns against her as well, setting up a sniper rifle in the mountains, where he tries to create what Deleuze called a “pure optical situation” in his attempt to fully control the disembodied sight that has crept over the town. Few people are more disembodied than a sniper, especially since Macreedy is trapped behind the crashed car headlights, frozen on the edge of pool of abstract light that very nearly debilitates him too.

In the end, though, Macreedy wins by embracing his limited movement, instead of trying to totally disembody his sight. In his most awkward, ungainly, clambering gestures so far, he pivots around his bad arm and siphons off petrol from the car to make a bomb that lures out Smith, and allows Macreedy to throw a Molotov Cocktail in his direction, setting him alight just as the townsfolk set Komoko alight. Yet Smith’s sniper fire captures a craziness that the film never quite recovers from, especially once he turns against Liz, his supposed ally. We see here the emergence of the white terrorist – the disenfranchised white man who deals with his supposed sensory-motor dislocation, his inability to act in proportion to a changing world, through acts of random violence that exist for no other reason than to affirm action itself. In this weird abstract noir space, lit by the upended headlights of Macreedy’s car, we see the ancestor of Columbine, the Las Vegas shooter, and modern white supremacy – and above all  in the Reno’s chilling riposte to Liz: “Why start with me?” “I’ve got to start with someone.”

Bad Day at Black Rock thus has two answers to the question of how (white) American men might process the sensory-motor shock of World War II – accepting a new horizon to movement, as occurs with Macreedy, or resorting to terrorism, as occurs with Reno Smith. The does end so much as poise precipitously between these two options – right down to the penultimate shot of a disembodied arm reaching a gun out of the police station window, and pointing it in the direction of Macreedy and Liz as they return, dishevelled, from Adobe Flat. The hand turns out to be friendly, but this is also the most dramatic discorrelation of sight and movement so far, paving the way for a profoundly ambivalent finale, as Macreedy gives Komoko’s father’s wartime medal to Black Rock, to help it heal. Yet this feels like a purely symbolic healing, an empty gesture that can’t really restore the western, or the sensory-motor horizons it once envisaged, leaving the genre open as a broader question about the future of the West. Just before Macreedy leaves, Doc reflects: “This town’s wrecked, maybe it can come back.” Macreedy’s response is simple: “Some towns do and some towns don’t.”

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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