‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ or — Existential Incest out West. Wait, what the fuc…?!!
When I was looking up reviews of the blu ray of John Sturges’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (I’d never seen it so was curious to know if it was worth picking up) one writer highlighted that the audio commentary mentions Freud at certain points and he couldn’t quite understand why.
I can tell you why as this film is psychologically fucked up! Where to even begin?
The film opens with a Freudian enough image — a massive, metallic phallus smashing its way anachronistically through the desert plains; a penis of modernity penetrating the primitive, backward landscape. It’s a remarkably surreal image. But what seed of vengeance is it carrying and about to unload into the town of Black Rock?
The train stops at Black Rock, even though it isn’t meant to, in a similar way to how Lee Van Cleef gets off at Tucumcari in ‘For A Few Dollars More’ (1965), plus the way the camera looks down the tracks also echoes the start of ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’ (1968). The overriding impression is that Leone must have seen this movie. Anyway, moving on…
Off the train steps John Macreedy (played by Spencer Tracy) who enters this tiny community… except this isn’t a community, not by a long way. Instead, it is a group of isolated individuals simply existing in space with nothing holding them together except fear and geography. And they are all men. There is a sense of impotence and the inability to create life here. How can you create life when it is all cocks and balls? The only woman is the sister of one of the men which automatically excludes her as a potential to keep life going through the implicit barrier of incest (she seems to be not just the man’s sister but the sister to the entire town by fact of her being the only female). Just where are all the other women? This gene pool is way too small in this existential, male hell-hole. The air is thick with inertia, guilt and the stink of self-loathing masturbation.
Macreedy’s name is also fortuitous as there are parallels to ‘The Thing’ (1982): a group of men stuck together going insane and with a sense of threat being ever present. There’s also a touch ‘Wake in Fright’ (1971) with its atmosphere of isolation and nihilism in an arid landscape.
So why is Macreedy here? We don’t know. What has happened at Black Rock to bring him here? We don’t know. Is Macreedy a good guy or a force of evil (he is dressed in black after all)? We don’t know. Has terror or retribution come to Black Rock? We don’t know and the more we don’t know the more we hold our breath, even though there is no air here. It’s just as well the film is so short as the effect is suffocating. As the town Doctor says –
“Four years ago something terrible happened here. We did nothing about it, nothing. The whole town fell into a sort of settled melancholy and all the people in it closed their eyes, and held their tongues, and… failed the test with a whimper. And now something terrible’s going to happen again — and in a way we’re lucky, because we’ve been given a second chance.”
Macreedy starts by asking questions. He is looking for a place called Adobe Flats yet whenever he asks questions he is immediately met with the explicitly implicit threat of violence. Yet Macreedy is indefatigable and seems to be even more, potentially, deadly than the men of this place.
It is the innuendo of violence that makes this film so taut. It is everywhere and the way that Tracy’s character cuts through it all and keeps pushing for answers (even though the questions haven’t been asked) is remarkable. This is violence as flirtation. Maybe because there are no women here then this is the only way the men can do a little flirting. Either way, they’re good at it and know how to pile on the subtext.
The way that Macreedy deals with all this — the implicit threats, the unspoken admissions, the obfuscations — is very much like a psychotherapist. He is calm yet firm, keeps bringing it round to the here and now and the facts and sees through any, and all, game played or masks worn. The psychological depth here is striking and there is a lot of it going on. The fact that Freud is brought up in the commentary is now, after seeing the film, no big surprise. It is here and writ large and it’s mesmerising.
‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ lives up to its name — this is a bad day and one of almost unlimited horror. And that sense of Hell, that real feeling of almost Biblical damnation, is brought out at the climax with (slight spoilers) the death of Robert Ryan. He is on fire yet the flames almost seem to be coming from within. It’s almost as though he is burning from the inside, the sins that have been eating at him are finally consuming him completely. It is a deeply disturbing image.
America is being held up to account here and in a completely unflinching way. It deals with the trauma of war, especially WW II, yet it also, and more worryingly, seems to be hinting at evil and darkness that have always been here, whether as part of America or of humanity itself. It also feels like a statement of guilt over the dropping of The Bomb.
Fortunately there is hope and it is the possibility of redemption and of courage to stand up against evil. This is summed up in a gut-wrenching exchange between two characters –
“It’s strange how a man will cling to the earth when he feels he isn’t going to see it again.”
to which he is told
“There’s a lot of difference between clinging to it and crawling on the earth.”
‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ an intestine-tightening film, with inaction as action. This inability to have release (again, sexual themes arise) makes the tension even more sickening. Fortunately the razor sharp dialogue keeps the movie wonderfully entertaining and the performances are excellent. The film is a blast to watch although I’m glad it is so short. There’s only so long I can hold my breath at Black Rock.