Before he made the quintessential stuff like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, director John Sturges made many many films - including BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, which happens to be my favorite of all his movies. It's a simple story with a simple setting and an odd mystery at the center of it. An enigmatic one-armed man (no, not David Janssen) arrives (by roaring train) in an isolated small town in the middle of the desert and is immediately met with guff. He gets guff from all the inhabitants of this town and some of that guff is downright threatening. At first, we might think they just don't like outsiders - and that's true, but there's more to it than that. What's enjoyable is watching as the two factions (the man and the townspeople) cagily circle each other in an attempt to find out what the other one wants. It's one thing to have Spencer Tracy play the mysterious man, but it adds a whole other level of awesome when the townsfolk are people like Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan and Robert Ryan. This film was the one that helped me appreciate how good an actor Spencer Tracy was. When I first discovered the movie on VHS, I had seen bits of him here and there, but nothing that grabbed me. Lots of "classics" like GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and INHERIT THE WIND made him seem old and boring to me. I had yet to come upon the glory of some of his best work with Katharine Hepburn and some of his equally outstanding earlier work with Clark Gable and others. BAD DAY was my Tracy gateway drug though. He absolutely captivated me in his gentile tough guy-ness and stood toe to toe with some of the greats of Hollywood cinema and the weight of that couldn't help but grab my attention. I didn't know Robert Ryan all that well either at the time, but I could tell immediately that he was a man's man kind of actor like Lee Marvin (who I was aware of because my dad showed me THE DIRTY DOZEN at one point). Little did I know that Walter Brennan would become a huge part of my personal cinematic lexicon when I saw him soon after in RIO BRAVO - which is still one of my favorites and also an interesting "bottled up small town" film like BAD DAY. I think this was my first exposure to the lovely Anne Francis too and she would go on to take my breath away in another of my beloved cinematic treasures - FORBIDDEN PLANET. Spencer Tracy was the man though in BAD DAY and his realization of this character has stuck with me ever since.
One of my favorite podcasts, You Must Remember This, did an great episode on Tracy that I highly recommend to fans of the man:
Another thing I associate with BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is commentary tracks. When Criterion released the film on Laserdisc back in the day, it included a track from the gruff-voiced John Sturges himself. I heard about it from ANOTHER commentary track that Paul Thomas Anderson did (for either BOOGIE NIGHTS or HARD EIGHT) where he claimed that everything he learned about filmmaking came from Sturges' commentary for BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Anderson was right and when I heard that track, it really got me. Sturges was so down to earth and straight forward with his ideas about filmmaking and it all made perfect sense. It was a true master class and the movie itself exemplified much technique. While the Sturges Criterion commentary is sadly not to be found on this disc (and is seemingly "lost"), it can be procured online if you are willing to look a little for it. I found this 15 minute excerpt which gives a nice taste of how good a track it is (and it is one of my favorites):
I've also embedded the excellent Trailers From Hell commentary from the late Dan Ireland below:
The other thing that caught my eye with this film was the fact that it was a Cinemascope movie and I was fully into my earliest phase of recognizing how much of certain older films were being left unseen via the square and panned and scanned VHS transfers of the day. BAD DAY was one that clearly needed to be seen in its widescreen grandeur and this Blu-ray demonstrates that quite well (as the film looks better than ever on this disc).
-Commentary by Film Historian Dana Polan.
WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967; Terence Young)
This movie had a reputation around my house as a kid before I even knew what scary movies were all about. I remember my dad saying that it would scare me to death and that was one of the few times I ever heard him talk about a film being frightening. Naturally, with a title like WAIT UNTIL DARK, I conjured of the most dreadful monsters I could think of - things that scared me at that age. I can't recall specifically what came into my head, but all I knew was that that movie must not be seen by me ever if it scared my father like that. Cut to many years later, when I finally saw it and it affected me much differently than I had expected. Was it scary? It kind of was, but more in a thriller-y way. My dad had made me think of a horror movie and this wasn't that really. Sure it featured a psychopathic killer (Alan Arkin) on the loose - but he wasn't Jason Voorhees or anything. The scary stuff comes from the fact that the killer (and two of his buddies) ends up hiding out in the apartment of a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) and she doesn't realize what's going on for a bit. So you have a natural, almost Hitchcockian setup there in that we know something about the peril of the main character before she does. Also, even when she knows what's going on, we are still totally gripped by the fact that she can't see the guy and he is not at all a nice person (to put it lightly). So I can absolutely see what my dad saw in the movie at the time (he saw it theatrically). He was never a huge horror movie person, so this was about the closest he would get to the kind of thing I would later become obsessed with. To put things in perspective though, in 1967 (only seven years removed from PSYCHO), there probably hadn't been all that much along the lines of this kind of terrifying thriller in American theaters. The other big thing was that it was Audrey Hepburn who was being stalked. Hepburn was an American sweetheart of sorts - having been iconic in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S in 1961 and equally memorable in MY FAIR LADY in 1964. I can't imagine taking an beloved actress like that and seeing her thrust into harm's way in a very creepy and theatrical way like this. I'm trying to draw some kind of parallel to nowadays and I guess it might be like seeing Emma Stone in a horror movie now after she'd done mostly comedies and whatnot. That doesn't even cover it though, because we are much more used to seeing all kinds of actresses do horror films and Emma Stone ain't no Audrey Hepburn. It just had to be so shocking back then and I'm sure that's what hooked my father. Even today, WAIT UNTIL DARK stands as a compelling exercise in thrilling suspense. We saw something of a weird reversal of this scenario with this past year's DON'T BREATHE, which also featured a blind person (not helpless) and three crooks. There is must tension to be wrung from situations where one character is in the same room with others and doesn't realize they may be standing or crouching nearby. It's certainly a good mechanism, and while Hitchcock would likely have done it better (you can feel the stage play roots in this one for sure), the performances by Hepburn and Arkin (as well as by his cronies - Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) are excellent and unnerving where they need to be.
-"TAKE A LOOK IN THE DARK" - Alan Arkin and Producer Mel Ferrer reminisce about the Making of the film.
IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955; Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly)
Lovers of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN will want to enjoy this other collaboration between Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. Being that I'm a huge ON THE TOWN fan, I was anxious to finally see this movie as I had heard it could be seen as the downbeat sequel musical to that film - the post-war years as it were. The movie opens breathtakingly, but with an underlying melancholy, as three ex-G.I.s just out of the service do a serious drunken pub crawl and end up dancing with trash can lids on their feet (an amazing number by the way). It's a dazzling sequence, but it sets the tone early for a much much darker stage upon which this new tale will play itself out. The three pals make an project with certainty that they will still be close friends in ten years and decide make agreement amongst themselves to return to the same bar a decade later. What follows is a lovely montage played out on the screen (which has been divided into three sections - one for each of the guys) that demonstrates how the trio are passing the years after that last night together. I've always loved "time passage montages" in general and with this movie, you get a three-in-one version of that. Overall, I would say that this one is a must see for fans of the musicals of this era and a must own for Gene Kelly-ites. It does layer quite a bit of sadness under a lot of the story and musical numbers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing and I appreciated the change of pace that it offers while still keeping up ties to the classics of the period. There are some amazing set pieces to be enjoyed here including one with Gene Kelly on roller skates that is not to be missed. The addition of the skates to an already remarkable Kelly dance number makes it feel as though he is actually floating (or figure skating) and that just allows him to be even more graceful than usual.