film

Old School Review: “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955)

Written for the screen by Millard Kaufman, and adapted by Don McGuire, from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, and directed by John Sturges, “Bad Day at Black Rock” has elements of both noir and western as an inquisitve one-armed man comes to the small desert town of Black Rock in search of answers. Admittedly, when hitting play on this movie, I had fully expected a nineteenth century western to appear before my eyes mostly due to the title alone. What I got was an unexpected delight, as those assumptions had eroded fairly quickly as the opening of the film was following a train that was far too modern to be of the old west. The first hint of something odd afoot is when the train station telegrapher, Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins) seems surprised, and maybe even a bit worried, that the Train is slowing down to stop, the first time it has done so in four years.

After watching the complex and daunting (yet very impressive) “Tenet” earlier in the week, I was left wanting something slower and simpler. Which is exactly what I got with this film. At an hour and twenty minutes, this film offered me both something old and something new. I was very engaged by the mystery that the film wraps you in almost immediately, but it also has just enough of that Noir flavor sprinkled in to really set this one aside as slightly elevated nostalgia genre fare. For me, this film was comfort food. For about a third to the first half of the story, we really don’t know the intentions of either the townsfolk or this stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). All we know is that he’s searching for a Japanese American farmer named Komoko, and that everyone in town is suspicious of him once he starts asking around. At first I thought that the townsfolk might actually be protecting Komoko as one of their own from this Macreedy, possibly a government stooge? He had the suit for it, but as it turns out I wasn’t even close on first impressions as it became evidently clear what the truth of the situation was. Everyone in town tries to stall Macreedy at every turn, from not offering him a hotel room, physically getting in his way, to curt and aggressive social tactics. After awhile a young woman in town, Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) allows Macreedy to borrow her jeep to the disdain of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial ruler of this small town. Macreedy makes his way out to Adobe Flats, where he finds the remains of a charred house, a well with water deep in the bottom, and strangely enough, wildflowers growing.

On his way back into town Macreedy’s assailed by one of Smith’s goons, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), as he rams the small jeep around the uneven dirt road and eventually smashes Macreedy off the road with a laugh and a glare before beating him back to town. Eventually Macreedy puts enough clues together to get a good idea of what happened to Komoko, but he goes out of his way to confirm that before he and several good townsfolk acknowledge the real danger that Macreedy’s gotten himself into. I was particularly entertained by the exasperated, but good natured, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) as he tries his best to help out Macreedy in his search for truth, and justice for Komoko. This was a quick delight of a film, and it’s wondrously anti-racist at it’s core. In fact the film almost didn’t get made as the subtle rebuke of Mccarthyism gave studio executives a myriad of problems on the matter, but it eventually got made in spite of this pushback. During my watch I was charmed by the old school mentality of an able-bodied actor with two working limbs trying to fake a lame one throughout the film production. They don’t make movies like that anymore, and while it could be a partial limb that the character was hiding, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Tracy’s just got his hand in his pocket the whole movie, but hey, it still gave the character more mystique initially. We eventually discover that he was a platoon leader in Italy during the war, which is fresh in everyone’s minds as this film is set in late 1945 after the war had just ended mere months ago. We eventually discover the humility and morality behind Macreedy’s reasoning in seeking out Komoko, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover on your own. There’s also a surprising and explosive scene in which Macreedy performs defensive judo moves on Coley Trimble under threat of intimidation tactics, and that alone would cover the price of admission for me. I found this one on the Criterion Channel, but it’s one that will be leaving at the end of the month, so check it out there while you can!

Final Score: 1 Molotov Cocktail

film

Old School Review: “The Wild Bunch” (1969)

Written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, and directed by Peckinpah, “The Wild Bunch” is a Western following a gang of gunslingers and outlaws emerging into the twentieth century as they come to terms with the end of their era. If you’ve spent the last two months roaming the digital countrysides of “Red Dead Redemption 2” like I have, and you’re seeking more of that same grizzled cowboy violence, then “The Wild Bunch” will definitely satiate some of your old west woes. This movie shares many of the same themes and visual cues that the groundbreaking video-game western implements over it’s hours, upon hours, of storytelling.

After a botched heist devolves into a shootout in an excellent opening scene, the ragged outlaws finally reach a place to gather themselves and account for their losses. It’s here that Pike (William Holden), the gang leader, poises the terms of their next score and the core of their existential crisis, “We’ve got to start thinkin’ beyond our guns. Those days are closin’ fast.” Set during the global eve of World War One in 1913 with the modern world quickly encroaching on those tied to the ways of old, “The Wild Bunch” delivers us a nuanced and layered film that pairs its chaotic violence with real humanistic quality. It’d be an arduous task in finding a Western more concerned with tragedy and loss, or one so bathed in melancholy and savageness. The noble outlaws in this picture are exposed to some of the most uncensored violence of the day when it was initially released. While Sam Peckinpah thought the violence would shock people into the horrors of such a time, he would have no idea how much people might enjoy such cathartic carnage.

The driving force of the film lies in the pursuit of Pike’s gang by a posse led by a former outlaw and friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Previously captured and coerced into hunting his fellow outlaws by an anonymous railroad tycoon, Deke detests the system he now works for and frequently talks down to his less than skillful hired help. Thus Pike’s gang flees to south of the border where they are plunged into another brand of chaos in the Mexican civil war as gun runners. While Deke may be coerced into tracking his former brothers, Pike’s gang has their own fair share of being forced into servitude by the Mexican army. Adherence to pressure by necessity, being forcibly made to adhere to the ways of others, is a major theme of the film as these outlaws get swept up by the progression of time.

Peckinpah handles the individual gang members with such mythic, admirable, and poetic romanticism that you often forget about earlier sequences focusing on the deglamorization of warfare. It’s within this contradictory sensation of heroic admiration and frightening nihilism that Peckinpah allows his characters to shine. Angel (Jaime S├ínchez), and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine [The Arthur Morgan of this film ironically]) in particular, are standouts among the gang. Dutch is one of the older outlaws and Pike’s second in command. With his wisdom from the school of hard knocks and a heart of gold to match, he pairs well with Angel’s youthful exuberance and itchy trigger finger. It’s all about balance, right?

The film is bookended by two large shootout sequences which weave chaotic violence with a romanticized nostalgia for times (and films) gone by. The film doesn’t necessarily glorify violence so much as it attempts to show the uglier and dirtier world of cinematic gunslingers. I honestly couldn’t say it better than the 1995 Chicago Tribune review of the restored director’s cut, “It’s a tale of demonic intensity, nightmare nihilism, cockeyed courage, outrageous compassion and savage grandeur.” 

Final Score: A few bags of washers and a train full of guns!