Bad Day At Black Rock

by David Yearsley, April 27, 2016

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s big win in the New York Primary this past Tuesday, the electoral map — in the color scheme adopted by the New York Times — was a giant red desert. Dragging yourself across the scorched earth extending from Niagara Falls to Staten Island there was nary a drop to drink, except for the tiny, failing spring of Kasich blue at Manhattan. Only at that liberal font did the Ohio governor beat the local real estate scourge by a slender 4%.

As The Donald drunk deeply at the victory bar, buzzards circled over the sunburned, emaciated Ted Cruz staggering deliriously across the bleak sands of the Empire State. Bivouacked in the Adirondacks, a hallucinating Kasich babbled his inaugural address as he saw visions of a deus ex machina of a Hillary Clinton cabinet post descending from the parched sky.

But there will be no Flight of the Phoenix, no Jimmy Stewart, that staunch supporter of all Republican presidential candidates from Goldwater to Reagan, to pilot the wrecked party’s plane to the oasis of relative reason. The Trump sandstorm gathers force as the last drop is drunk.

The insanity that drives those Trumpian winds made me think not of the desert of the 1965 air-shipwreck movie just mentioned, but that of another far more important, if unfairly neglected film, Bad Day at Black Rock directed by John Sturges a decade earlier. This searing drama confronts racism against Japanese-Americans in World War II in a vast of desert stretching below high mountains in the arid West.

Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy, a man with only one good arm wearing a frayed dark suit, arrives by train at a tiny, weather-beaten town set in an epic geography. Black Rock has a few shops, a hotel, a garage, and a police station — the buildings’ wood warped from sun, the paint peeling.

Macreedy inquires after a certain Mr. Kokomo but is greeted only by a conspiracy of silence that is enforced by a classic cast of screen thugs, forbears of Trump nativists. The barely contained fury of the ringleader Reno Smith is coiled into the hardened, handsome figure of Robert Ryan, one of the most complex and authentic actors working during the dying days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The heaviest of the toughs safeguarding the secret of a crime that remains nameless until late in the film’s tense and compact 81 minutes is played by the irreplaceable Ernest Borgnine: bluff, beastly, but ultimately beatable even by a righteous man with one lame arm.

Macreedy eventually reveals that he has come to Black Rock to give Mr. Kokomo his son’s posthumous medal received for having saved Macreedy’s life in the war. Kokomo lives far outside town on land leased from bad guy Smith, who had tried to enlist directly after Pearl Harbor but failed his physical. This rebuff stoked his virulent hatred of Japanese Americans. Increasing his rage still further is the fact that the elder Kokomo found that most precious of desert commodities on the land: water.

It’s a classic western scenario common, for example, to High Noon but updated to the present of 1954: Bad Day at Black Rock doesn’t deal with marauding gunslingers or range wars but with a festering wound, fresh and deep in the American body politic.

The film was shot in Lone Pine, California at the foot of Mt. Whitney. The area has served as the location for dozens of Hollywood westerns, from John Wayne in Blue Steel of 1934 to Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger of 2013. It is ironic that Bad Day at Black Rock should stage its scathing critique of Manifest Destiny at the site where so many of its supporting cinematic myths were enacted. But even more unsettling is the fact that Lone Pine is less than ten miles from Manzanar, where more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were interred between 1942-45.

Bad Day at Black Rock was the first MGM picture to be shot in Cinemascope. Studio head Dore Schary, who had taken over the post from the imperious Louis B. Mayer, wrote in his 1979 autobiography Heyday (that title alluding, of course, to the waning glory days Hollywood’s ancien régime) that he had originally planned for the film to have only ambient desert sounds and no music whatever: “First the quiet speck of a station in the heart of desolation. A wind blowing, a yowl of coyote, the far-off-horn of a diesel engine, then the roar of the train. The music department hated me.”

More importantly, however, the film bombed in previews, and the symphonic cavalry was summoned by the studio bugle. The 25-year-old André Previn, who had begun working for MGM when still at Beverly Hills High School, led the charge. Previn’s wonderfully breezy memoir of Hollywood, No Minor Chords, recalls the studio head’s call to arms:

“‘I want it to sound military,’ [Schary] said. ‘Lots of French horn,’ and to emphasize his wish, his arms pumped out the unmistakable gestures of a slide trombone.

‘You mean,’ I began carefully, ‘that you want a lot of brass instruments?’

‘No no no’ — a little impatiently — ‘French horns, lots of them,” and again the charade of a very busy trombonist.

‘Fine, okay,’ I agreed, and proceeded to write a vaguely dissonant and sinister score that seemed to make the producer very happy.”

Previn also allows that Bad Day at Black Rock “was actually a hell of a good movie.” That counted as towering praise from a massively talented musician and vital Hollywood resource, whose vivid humor is built largely on understatement and puncturing modesty. Previn’s score is a masterpiece of movie music, and in spite of his suave soft-pedaling of his accomplishments, I suspect he thinks the same.

As so often in the history of cinema soundtracks the vast stretches of the desert, leagues distant from the nearest studio or symphony hall, call forth from composers some of their best music, perhaps because that music is so magnificently, blatantly, literally out of place.

The studio’s trailer for Bad Day at Black Rock conveys some of the wild intensity of Previn’s score, myth and anti-myth battling it out on the desert floor and in the strings and brass, both goaded to violence by the lash of snare and cymbal.

The original version of the movie had Spencer Tracy stepping out of the train at the town’s desolate main street. After the negative preview responses, Sturges added opening aerial shots of the Streamliner locomotive pulling its passenger wagons across the desert. To get these thrilling images the studio had to pay Southern Pacific $5,500 — the price of 265 round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Lone Pine.

The soundtrack itself starts before the film: the clash of cymbal and the throbbing Stravinskian rhythms overwhelming the MGM Lion, whose distant roar sounds like it comes from within the cage of the orchestra. With the ensuing title “M-G-M Presents a Cinemascope Production” there is a blast of massed unison trombones and horns: the clever Previn gave studio boss Schary both what he’d mimed and what he’d asked for.

Widescreen glare fills the theater: the Streamliner streaks across the desert, the strings racing round in tight, frenzied cycles like the wheels rushing the train’s passenger towards his fate. This maniacal ostinato continues as we see a shot taken from the plane flying just above the tracks directly towards the engine, the symphonic struggle seemingly careening towards a suicide collision. But the plane pulls up at the last instant and into the title “Spencer Tracy” as the trombones extricate themselves momentarily from the orchestral clinch with brutal body blows.

So crazed and brilliant is this music you expect it to send the train piling off the rails. But the silver bullet does make it to the town, all sweat-drenched claustrophobia even in this endless terrain — the place and its people made even more terrifying by further outbreaks of Previn’s agonized music.

Previn had come to Hollywood with his family as a ten-year-old, fleeing Berlin’s comfortably middle-class, largely Jewish quarter of Schöneberg in 1939 at the last possible moment. How fitting that an immigrant should have supplied this artfully savage score for a great film about American hate.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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