Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

Advertisements

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****