Search This Blog

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Screenplay by Millard Kaufman; adaptation by Don McGuire; based on a story by Howard Breslin
Directed by John Sturges

Spencer Tracy:  John J. Macreedy
Robert Ryan:  Reno Smith
Ann Francis:  Liz Wirth
John Ericson:  Pete Wirth
Lee Marvin:  Hector David
Ernest Borgnine:  Coley Trimble

In 1955, movie attendance was down by half in America. There are several different reasons for this, but the two most important ones for the purposes of this review were the existence of the suburbs (when you don't have tens of thousands of people living in cities they don't fill up 2,000 seat movie palaces every day, especially if going to the movies requires driving for an hour, finding a parking place in downtown Chicago or New York City, paying a babysitter to watch one's kids, and then driving an hour back after the film) and the popularity of television--people could stay home and be entertained rather than go through all those things I just listed when talking about suburban sprawl. In order to try and reverse the income loss, movie studies tried lots of different ideas. 3-D first wound up on movie screens during this time (although it tended to be, not without justification, thought of as a cheap gimmick used to spice up lackluster movies). Color film came into widespread use, as did widescreen films--if you want to lure an audience in away from a television set, giving them a screen thousands of times bigger than the 12-inch square in the living room was one way to try it. Additionally, living color and CinemaScope and other widescreen processes were a way to try and entice audiences back into theaters.

While that explains the technological advances related to movie exhibition in 1955, there's plenty of other aspects of American life that should also be considered while thinking about this movie. In 1955, the Hays Production Code was still in effect. Movies could not be released to paying audiences without getting a censor's stamp proving that someone had gone over the film and not found anything objectionable under the terms of the code. (The production code would be scrapped in 1968 and replaced with the G, PG, R and X ratings that American movie audiences are much more familiar with.) Now that studios were risking more money (color film in 35mm cost a great deal more than black and white) with every color / widescreen film, an extra layer of studio interference got added in to every single movie that was being made. In Bad Day at Black Rock's case, it meant the studio head trying to shut the movie down before it got made. Partly this was because CinemaScope was an unproven gimmick at the time of the film's production and partly it stemmed from something else going on in American life.

In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee was still holding strong, even in the wake of the total disgrace of red-baiting alcoholic liar Joe McCarthy (he crashed and burned in late 1954, when this film would have been in production). Originally the HUAC was supposed to investigate American citizens with ties to Nazis, but after World War II fascism was a losing bet. Since the committee was still right there and needed to find something to do, their focus shifted to investigating Americans with ties to Communist organizations in 1947. Incidentally, they ignored the longest-lived domestic terrorist group in American history in order to do this; they thought the Ku Klux Klan was perfectly fine until 1965, when they started looking into that whole "murdering people for trying to exercise their civil rights" issue. The studio head at MGM, Nicholas Shrenk, thought that a movie that dealt, no matter how obliquely, with American racism and bullying tactics to control people would come under fire by the House members advancing t heir careers by dealing with Un-American Activities (and if you're reading that sentence two different ways, you're doing it right).

Which brings us to one more uncomfortable truth when talking about the motion picture industry in 1955. The Drifters might have sung about Technicolor and CinemaScope in 1964 but the lyrics also mention watching movies from the balcony. In 1964 (and in 1955, for that matter) watching movies from the balcony meant that you were black and the downstairs seats were for white people, and trying to sit in those seats could mean anything from getting tossed out of the theater without a refund to a death sentence (and your murderers would never face charges because law enforcement in town would explicitly be on the side of the white supremacists who used violence, rape and murder to keep the black population of America controlled through fear and intimidation).

All of those various aspects of American life during the mid-Fifties crossed paths in an obscure little map-speck town in the California desert called Black Rock.

The first image on the screen is a helicopter shot of a passenger train crossing the endless desert on a single line of track; then a shot of the train coming straight at the viewer pops onto the screen. This was supposedly added at the end of production as a way to make the film exciting from a start. It also shows just how vast the sky and earth are, and how little of an impression the industrial glories of 1955 make on this part of the planet.

The score gets rather shrill and busy as the train barrels on through the California desert and finally stops at a tiny hamlet called Black Rock. This is unusual enough to draw comment from at least one man in town; a long shot of the scene shows that Black Rock consists of eight, count 'em, eight buildings and one street. It could be a one horse town one day if they could save up and get a horse. When the train stops it lets off a middle-aged white man in a black suit and hat; he tips the porter for carrying his bag and banters a little bit with the train conductor, who gets to leave while the passenger is staying (though he only anticipates being there for a single day). The train conductor wishes him luck and also lets the audience know that this guy is Mr. Macreedy.

And now a moment to speak about the way Macreedy is coded in this movie. Through the entire running time of the film, Spencer Tracy keeps his left hand in his coat pocket. This signifies that Macreedy has at least lost the use of that limb, if not the entire arm itself (and the fixed position would show that it's a prosthetic arm affixed to however much of a limb he has at his left shoulder). In 1955 the makeup effects technology wasn't there to show someone with a missing limb--putting the actor in a wetsuit sleeve and erasing the missing arm in post-production wasn't an option. So the movie just sort of expects you to go along with things and accept that everyone in town will be treating the protagonist as if he is indeed missing his left arm. In the wake of World War II, there would have been tens of thousands of injured men living in America; one source I found online said that there were 17,000 men who lost a limb in combat. So audiences at the time likely would have made assumptions about the character's life before he got off that train (especially when they hear from one character that the story is taking place in 1945).

The first person to talk to Macreedy is Mr. Hastings, the town's telegraph operator (which should give you an idea of just how remote Black Rock is if they're still using the telegraph regularly in 1945). Hastings asks the new arrival what he's doing in town, and says that the train hasn't stopped in Black Rock for four years. He'd seem rude if he wasn't so obviously flummoxed by the idea of someone coming by to see the sights. Macreedy tells him that he wants to go to a place called Adobe Flat, and Hastings says there aren't any cabs for hire in the town once he hears that name. Macreedy asks if the hotel is open as his next order of business, and what appears to be a sizable portion of Black Rock's population watches him cross the street and enter the hotel.

There are no extras in the film, incidentally--Sturges decided that he wanted Black Rock to look utterly deserted so there aren't really any people in it other than the characters in the film. It makes the story seem more intimate while also blowing up the importance of any of the individual characters. If you're only going to see a dozen or so people over the course of the narrative, it makes sense that they're all going to look important.

Hastings calls someone via candlestick telephone and says the new person in town is looking for Adobe Flat. Meanwhile, two cattle drovers sidle up to the hotel door as Macreedy walks in (notice that he's got to put his suitcase down in order to open the door, since he's only got one usable hand). The taller idler, Hector, sends the shorter one, Coley, out to notify "Smith" about the newcomer, then sits down in the hotel lobby to keep an eye on Macreedy. In the lobby, Pete the hotel clerk says he can't rent a room because of a wartime restriction; he doesn't want to get fined if there's an audit of his books. Macreedy eyeballs him and helps himself to a key from the wall and says that one will do him just fine.

Another piece of coding here, and I'm not 100 percent sure about it but it sure seems to fit the evidence to me. I think the hotel clerk is supposed to be gay. He's a younger man than any of the other male characters, his shirt doesn't have the top two buttons done, but he also rolls his shirtsleeves up at his biceps (which none of the other men do) and he's got Brylcreem in his hair. Pete looks different from the other characters, is what I'm trying to say, and when the Hays production code was in effect, filmmakers were not permitted to make films with "sexual perversity" in them. So without referring to the character's sexuality there are signs and symbols that can be used in order to let the audience know what's up with them. It might also fit into the stereotype that Pete gets buffaloed so easily by Macreedy--he's weaker than the other people and caves in easily. He also seems twitchy and guilty about something, which makes me wonder if he's hiding his secret in a town that already has one.

Once Macreedy goes upstairs (and tells the idler in the dusty chair what his name is, since everyone's so interested in him); the cowboy tells Pete that Macreedy is under surveillance, and that the clerk should tell him whatever the new guest does. Sixty years after the movie was made, hearing someone say that Macreedy's phone needs to be listened in on and his mail (if any) read provokes a bitter grin. In 2015 that's what heroes do to stop evil. In 1955 that's what obviously guilty rednecks do to figure out what they need to do to protect themselves.

After a bath and a shave, Macreedy feels much better but finds Hector lounging on his bed in the hotel room. Hector tells Macreedy that it's his room (when he's in town), and Macreedy shrugs and asks for a couple minutes to gather up his stuff before finding another empty hotel room to sleep in. Hector keeps trying to provoke a fight with the new guy, but Macreedy isn't rising to any of the bait (though he does ask why everyone in town has been giving him a hard time; as you might expect, Hector isn't giving away any information on that subject). Down in the hotel lobby, five people are sitting around gossiping and theorizing about what Mr. John Macreedy of Los Angeles, California is doing in a place almost nobody's ever heard of. The town doctor is the most openly bitter one, saying he hopes that the new guy brought a sample case of dynamite and will scour Black Rock completely off the map. Doc also notices that Macreedy's coming down the stairs and says if anyone wants to know if he's a cop (one of the prevailing theories) they could always just ask him.

Nobody's got the guts to just ask Macreedy outright, so instead he winds up giving a tiny bit of information to Pete--that he's only staying in town for a day--and then tries to find out if there's a car for rent anywhere around. When he's told there isn't, he changes tactics slightly and asks if there's a gas station instead. Doc points Macreedy towards a garage at the end of the (only) street. When he goes to see whether or not he can hire transportation there, the apparent bigwig Mr. Smith shows up at the hotel to find out whatever Pete can tell him.

Smith holds court in the hotel lobby, where Hector tells him that Macreedy folds much too easily under pressure--apparently he doesn't know what to make of someone so confident of his masculinity that he doesn't have to prove it at the drop of a hat or any time someone challenges him. Doc tries to tell Smith that there's nothing to worry about--not that he knows about anything that the stranger might uncover in town, no sir, not at all. Smith says he'll have Coley wash the doctor's mouth out with caustic lye some day, and Coley looks incredibly happy at the prospect of making someone suffer. Harris interrupts the gathering to tell Smith that he called a local cattle ranch, and they've never heard of John Macreedy; Smith says to call a private detective in Los Angeles that apparently owes him a favor and ask for a fast-response background check on the mysterious stranger.

Smith tells his subordinates that they're to wait for further instructions; he doesn't know what Macreedy's in town for but does know that pushing someone too hard or hinting that there's something wrong will pique curiosity and he'd much rather have things go smoothly. They're all waiting to hear back from the detective, so there's no point in trying to force things for the time being. Everything seems calm until Doc gleefully tells everyone that Macreedy's headed to the town jail, apparently planning to talk to the sheriff.

The sheriff is catching an afternoon nap in his own jail cell when Macreedy comes in, and then treats himself to a few fingers of rotgut booze straight from the bottle (he belatedly realizes what a terrible first impression he's making and says he's not usually that hung over). He fishes around for the reason that Macreedy's in town, having pegged him as an outsider pretty much instantly. As soon as he hears "Adobe Flat", though, he clams up. When he hears that Macreedy is looking for a man named Komoko, he reaches for his bottle so fast he almost knocks it off the desk, but the new guy in town saves it ("You move fast for a crip...uh, for a big man."). But drunk, sober, or filled with gratitude that he doesn't have to lick his booze off the jailhouse floor, he's not saying a single word about the mysterious Komoko.

One more avenue of investigation closed off, Macreedy returns to the hotel where Reno Smith introduces himself as a local ranch owner, and so far the sole friendly face in town. Reno tries to find out more about the mysterious stranger but doesn't get much info. He does invite Macreedy out hunting but gets politely rebuffed. Macreedy drops the name "Komoko" again, and Smith's willing to admit that he knows who that person is--the story we get from the town boss is that Komoko was a Japanese farmer who picked a really bad time to move to Black Rock. He got a patch of land just before the Pearl Harbor attack and was shipped to a concentration camp a few months later. He even manages to look a little sympathetic and offers to help Macreedy track down which internment camp Komoko was sent to. Macreedy responds by saying that his letters keep coming back from whatever government agency was responsible for repatriating the Japanese-ancestry political prisoners to their own country (I imagine the idea that the people who were locked up as a paranoiac precaution were Americans too is another reason the studio boss wanted to kill this movie before it was made).

Before Smith can give too much more away,:g Liz, the young woman who owns the garage drives up in a surplus Army Jeep; Macreedy rents the vehicle from her before Smith can warn her that he's going to Adobe Flat. Smith tries a couple of tactics to forestall Macreedy's trip but they don't work (the new arrival says he won't tell the sheriff about renting the Jeep if it means Liz won't get in trouble for renting cars without a taxi license). Macreedy also shows that he's utterly self-sufficient even with only one arm, since he handles the Jeep perfectly well as he drives out of town to follow Liz's directions. Liz figures there's no harm in sending Macreedy out into the middle of the desert to look for whatever he's going to find in Adobe Flat; Smith is already getting eaten up with paranoia that something's going to go wrong. (Liz is wearing trousers, which probably makes a lot of sense in the desert but I'm surprised there wasn't an actual entry in the Hays code forbidden women in pants on the silver screen.)

Smith goes to the sheriff's office and in his conversation with the drunk lawman (who is sleeping in his cell again; what a perfect symbol to show that he's guilty of something without saying a word) the sheriff says he's got no idea why Macreedy might kick up a storm. He just doesn't want any more trouble in town. Not "any trouble", mind you. He said "no more trouble". It's obvious that Smith knows what happened to Komoko (whatever it was), and that Smith also knows that everyone still living in Black Rock knows what happened. But they're all so cowed by him that they'll never speak on it.

The sheriff says maybe Smith should tell him what everyone's been so careful not to know about Komoko, and he also says he's still the law in town (for what it's worth). He also makes a few threatening noises about doing his job for once; Smith shuts him down pretty much instantaneously and without even raising his voice. And then, because he's a decent sort for a tinpot small town dictator, he offers to treat the sheriff to a cup of coffee at Sam's Grill.

On the way to the restaurant (and parenthetically, one thing I do dearly love about this film is the way the story flows from incident to incident as people move around in Black Rock; it makes a lot of sense that the characters would run into each other frequently because there's only three or four places to go before you're out in the desert) Smith and the sheriff run in to Harris the telegraph-man. That detective in Los Angeles wrote back, and there's no record of a John J. Macreedy anywhere that he's been able to look. Either it's an alias, or Macreedy's just an honest man who hasn't had a brush with the law anywhere in California. The audience figures that it's yes on one and no on two for those options, but nobody in the Black Rock Nefarious Doings Club agrees. I just noticed a great visual pun on this viewing, by the way--while Harris, Pete, the two cowboys who work for Smith, the sheriff and Reno Smith himself are trying to figure out what to do about Macreedy, they're standing at the railroad crossing in town. That's as close as you can get to a crossroads in a town with only one street.

The sheriff walks back to his office (and the bottle of liquor in his desk; he stuck it in there when threatening Smith with the prospect of actually doing his job). Smith and Coley wander off about a dozen feet and talk about what Macreedy might find out--and again, the movie makes it crystal clear that everyone in town knows what happened to Komoko but nobody is willing to say exactly what that is. The interesting thing is that some of the people aren't talking out of fear (of what Smith will do to them, most likely) but some of them look like they're silent out of shame.

Smith hates this turn of events, of course, and he points out that in the few hours that Macreedy's been in town, people have either been sick with worry and fear (everyone in his circle) or suddenly showing some backbone for the first time in about half a decade (Doc and the sheriff). Smith is interested in a nice, quiet status quo (where he is unquestionably in charge), so this simply will not do. Pete says that maybe it isn't necessary to kill Macreedy, but Smith jumps all over him, framing the issue as one of simple survival:  If Macreedy survives, everyone in town has something to lose. Pete buckles immediately and everyone walks off to go plot a murder except for Doc, who goes the other way (both literally and symbolically) to go talk to the sheriff instead.

At the jail, the audience gets another piece of the puzzle dropped into place via Doc and the sheriff conversing. The lawman is at his desk instead of napping in the cell, which shows that he's starting to take his job seriously again--one of the things that's so wonderful about this film is the way it shows character through setting and action rather than just dialogue. Whatever happened was "four years ago" and whatever happened, the sheriff didn't even carry out a token investigation. Reno Smith fed him a story and he swallowed it unquestioningly, whatever it was. He asks the doctor what he would have done back when things went bad, and mentions that he's been letting the knowledge of his weakness eat him alive ever since Macreedy showed up. As long as it was just a secret binding everyone in town in a web of shame he was all right with things, but now that someone from the outside world showed up and might discover whatever happened, a lot of buried guilty thoughts are starting to bubble back up to the surface. Significantly, when he asks the doctor what prescription there is for four years of backlogged shame, the medical man says he doesn't know, and he's been looking for one for his own peace of mind. But maybe, he says, the new arrival brought it with him.

Speaking of Macreedy, he's made it to Adobe Flat now and whatever happened to Komoko, it included his house burning down. The brick chimney is still standing but nobody cleared away the timbers over nearly half a decade. But the windmill on the water pump still turns when the wind blows, the well underneath that windmill has water in it, and, for some reason, there are wildflowers growing in the area. Macreedy drives back to Black Rock, but doesn't see that Coley is watching him through a pair of binoculars from a rock formation some ways away. He pursues Macreedy back to town and rams him off the road into a rock-strewn ditch. Macreedy's too good of a driver to get killed from this, but it certainly does tick him off (and also lets him know that something sure is up in that sleepy little town).

Coley tries to hassle Macreedy back at the hotel, but his victim just keeps refusing to rise to the bait. He decides that whatever is going on isn't worth his life and lets Pete know that he'll be leaving as soon as it's convenient (but there aren't any trains due till the Streamliner the next morning; Black Rock is not exactly a hotbed of commerce or transportation). Liz over at the garage informs Macreedy that her Jeep is no longer available for rent when he asks. She tells Macreedy that he's leaving soon enough (which might not be soon enough) but she's got to stay living in Black Rock ("These people are my neighbors, my friends." "All of 'em?"). Liz says she's sticking around because of her brother; he's too weak to be on his own.

One of the lines that probably caused more trouble with the studio censors than the rest of the film put together gets dropped here, when Macreedy says that there aren't too many little towns like Black Rock in the country, but one is more than enough. In 1955, creating art that unequivocally states racially motivated murders ignored by law enforcement were bad? That was absolutely Un-American. It gets worse when Macreedy says that the town isn't ruled by law any more, but by brute force (the kind of political system he lost an arm fighting, as you might recall). Liz drives off in the Jeep rather than continue talking (or confronting the kinds of moral compromises she's been living with since 1941).

Seconds after Macreedy sits on a bench outside the garage, Reno Smith shows up to fill up the tank of his land yacht (while mentioning gasoline rationing but not handing in his own ration booklet; yet another display of power and influence). He asks Macreedy where he learned to handle a Jeep as well as he did--after all, there's probably more than a few two-armed drivers that would have been killed with Coley running them off the road. While asking how Macreedy lost the use of his arm we get a little of the protagonist's back story. He was indeed in the army, and was badly wounded in Italy. Smith says he tried to enlist in the Marines after the Pearl Harbor bombing, but flunked the physical and couldn't go serve his country. After another question, Macreedy also says that he was forced into retirement when he was injured, which at least implies that he was a career officer (given Spencer Tracy's age it might even be meant to show that Macreedy fought in both world wars, which means he's tougher than a nickel steak).

The pleasantries out of the way, Smith gets down to the real question he wants answered--what was John J. Macreedy looking for when he went to Adobe Flat? Macreedy tells him that he was looking for Komoko, just like he said earlier. And Smith turned out to be true to his word as well; Komoko was not there. Smith can't bring himself to believe that someone as obviously impressive and self-possessed as Macreedy is really in his map speck of a town looking for a "lousy Jap farmer". During the interrogation, Smith gives away much more than he learns; it turns out the town bigwig is virulently anti-Japanese. He lists several wartime atrocities to explain why he was so furious at Komoko, blaming the man who built a small house at Adobe Flat for war crimes committed halfway around the world. Of course, Macreedy points out that Black Rock isn't all that friendly to strangers; Smith counters that they like some outsiders, but not ones that come snooping around looking for something. ("Like what?" "I don't know!", but delivered in a tone that makes Macreedy and the audience absolutely certain that Smith is hiding something very specific.)

It's an absolute pleasure to watch Spencer Tracy work in this scene. He's alone, outnumbered, has only one arm and one of Smith's goons just tried to kill him. Robert Ryan plays Reno Smith as a man who thinks he's got all the power in the relationship but even though he starts out asking the questions, Macreedy is the one who winds up learning everything while giving out perfectly honest answers. When Smith tries bullying him again, Macreedy drops another bombshell on the town boss:  The presence of wildflowers in that empty unused land means there's a grave out there. He even tells Smith that it can't be a human grave because there's no marker (moments after Smith compared Komoko to a rabid dog that threatened everyone out of sheer Japanese-ness). After Smith says that Macreedy might enjoy solving that particular mystery, the older man declines and says he's not all that interested in figuring it out.

The next stop for Macreedy is the veterinarian / undertaker's parlor (and isn't that a wonderful combination to have in one building?); he wants to make a phone call and Doc Velie gives him the number for the state police--which, in a time when not everyone had a telephone, is just "424". That's an area code now, not a phone number. Doc also cheerfully recommends that Macreedy not trust anyone in town, even the one who told him the listing for the state cops.

The phone switchboard for Black Rock turns out to be in the hotel; Pete panics when he realizes who Macreedy is calling and says all the lines are busy. Doc predicts that they're going to be busy all day. I bet he's right. Doc explains the way things work in Black Rock--the hills have deposits of shiny bright fool's gold and the country's so devoid of rainfall "you have to prime a man before he can spit". People who fail at prospecting turn to farming, go mad in the pitiless sun and get buried near Black Rock after they die. It's a place built far away from anything good and slowly declining inch by inch.
The town sawbones tells Macreedy that he should mind his own business, and provides himself as an example of just what that can get you (alive, but not prosperous, and living under Reno Smith's thumb). The doctor's willing to get Macreedy out of town, but they'll have to go quietly before Smith's men kill him. And, fittingly enough, the sweet ride that's going to serve as Macreedy's chariot is Doc's hearse.

Of course' things aren't that simple--when Macreedy tries to start the hearse nothing happens. Hector, ambling by completely by coincidence, recommends that the hearse's wiring might be at fault, then rips a handful of it out from under the hood just to prove his point. Doc apologizes, and notes that at least he did try to do something to help (unspoken addendum:  "this time"). Macreedy decides that if he's going out of town it'll have to be on foot and leaves, apparently having thought of something. He's not quite so trusting that he tells Doc what it is, though.

Over at the train station, Macreedy declines the offer of a lemonade and pays for a telegram to the state police barracks in nearby Sand City. Hastings curdles immediately when he realizes what he's got to send out and retreats into his self image as man who can go along to get along ("I'm just a good neighbor." "To Smith, you are. What about to Komoko?"). Macreedy pays for the telegram and goes to the cafe for lunch, where the counterman offers the choice of chili and beans or chili without beans.

Before Macreedy can enjoy his meal, Smith shows up with Coley in tow. The bully tries repeatedly to push Macreedy into striking out at him, but the interloper just isn't having any of it. He just gives a flat "No comment" to any of the antagonistic crap that Coley throws at him, happily moves to another counter stool when the younger man claims the seat he's in, and otherwise just isn't interested in getting manipulated into a fight where he'll lose (probably fatally) and his killer will get to claim self-defense. Especially because Reno Smith is right there watching everything go down, and the various other people in the diner will all provide an alibi to the murderer if they have to.

Macreedy calmly explains all of this to Smith (talking to the organ grinder rather than the monkey, as it were) and doesn't care to finish his chili when Coley offers to tie one arm behind his back to make it a fair fight. It's when the bully grabs Macreedy by his useless arm, spins him around and offers to tie both hands behind his back that John J. Macreedy is officially fed up with everyone's attitude and effortlessly beats the living shit out of Coley with one hand (using some martial arts moves that had to be quite novel to audiences in 1955; turns out that whatever Macreedy was doing during the war, it involved learning judo). Also, the screen door getting torn off its hinges and falling on Coley when he gets knocked outside was an accident, but everyone involved was too professional to do anything but roll with it. That's some Hollywood magic right there.

What I love the most about that beatdown (it's not a fight scene if the other guy never connects) is the total Zen stillness from Spencer Tracy and his stunt double when they're taking Ernest Borgnine apart. You get the feeling that Macreedy is angrier than any human being has ever been without bursting into flame but he's also utterly in control of his emotions while Coley just gets madder and sloppier every time he tries to clock his opponent and gets brutalized.

Hector turns out to be absolutely no help at all in the fight, for all his earlier threats. I love seeing stuff like that in movies. Real life, too, when it happens.

Once Coley's unconscious on the dusty floor of the restaurant Macreedy pulls the inevitable switchblade out of his pocket and points out to Smith that it would have been safer for his goons to just stab him in the back rather than try for a self-defense frameup. Then he goes to work on everyone else in the room, just with his words. He tells Smith that he's going to wind up paying for Komoko's murder--not because justice is ever going to be served in Black Rock, but because the useless jerkoffs he used for accomplices are going to kill him to keep the secret sooner or later--or just use it against him to save their own necks by turning state's evidence once the truth gets out there (either for Komoko's murder or for Macreedy's killing, assuming any of these useless dumbasses manage to get the drop on him).

Back at the hotel, Macreedy finds out a couple of things:  Coley's going to make a complete recovery eventually, and Hastings never sent that telegram out, which Doc helpfully points out is a Federal offense. The sheriff is sitting in the hotel lobby in his socks (the lawman isn't quite ready to die with his boots on, it appears). He gets shut down by Smith and has his badge ripped off his shirt when he looks like he might be ready to start doing something about all the massively illegal goings-on. The brand new Sheriff Hector takes the unsent telegram from Macreedy's hand and tears it up, informing him that without evidence there's no way to register a complaint. He also calls Macreedy "boy" twice; you can't tell me that a Southern-accented sheriff using that term as he informs someone that they can't turn to the law for protection wasn't loaded during 1955. Shit, it's loaded sixty years later. There's no doubt in the audience's mind or Macreedy's about who is really pulling the strings, though; two syllables from Smith and Hector shuts up mid-threat and walks away. Smith and Hastings go with him; the now former sheriff and Doc stay in the lobby (along with Pete, still stuck behind the desk).

Whatever the strategy meeting looks like with Smith's crew, the one backing up Macreedy looks pretty awful. The sheriff wants to hide and drink while Doc tells him (in some rather on the nose dialogue) that he's not going to facilitate the sheriff looking the other way for another murder because he himself can't live with that choice again. And Doc also says that everyone in town sees the next killing coming, and those with a spark of conscience left won't let it happen again if they know what's good for themselves as human beings. The sheriff sees his last chance staring him in the face and blinks; he leaves, although he's got enough decency left to apologize to Macreedy before he goes.

Speaking of Macreedy, we finally learn just what led him to in Black Rock in the first place. He was planning to "resign from the human race", either fleeing to a South American island or just plain offing himself in Los Angeles and the town happened to be on the way. For all the cool self-possession he demonstrated during his stay in town, inside he was worried that he wasn't going to be good at anything any more. But ironically enough, Smith and his hangers-on trying to kill him showed just how good he still is at anything important. He also tears into Pete for his cowardice, and
then asks a question that nobody even knew was a possibility--did Komoko have any family other than his son Joe?

Doc had no idea that Komoko had a child; nobody else in town had the slightest clue either. It turns out that Komoko's offspring is buried in Italy, a veteran of the war that Macreedy fought in. Joe died trying to save Macreedy's life (it's implied that whatever happened at that point is the reason Macreedy can't use his left arm any more). But Joe also won a medal for valor and bravery; Macreedy figured that giving it to Komoko was the right thing to do. And now that Doc and Pete know what's going on with Macreedy, they repay him for this knowledge by explaining what happened to Komoko.

It turns out that Reno Smith leased the Adobe Flat land to Komoko, expecting that he'd ripped the Japanese man off and would just pocket the rent until the farmer gave up and left. Instead Komoko dug through sixty feet of desert rock and eventually struck water. It turns out that racist, bullying assholes don't like it when the person they were trying to cheat makes good. When Smith came back from trying to enlist into the Marines (remember, that was the day after the Pearl Harbor attack) he was sullen and started drinking with his hangers-on. When they were good and liquored up, they went to go harass the neighbor they all hated. Komoko, not being stupid, locked himself in the house. So Smith burned it down and shot Komoko when he ran out of the fire. Everyone decided to dummy up and conceal the crime. Coley, Smith and Hector all don't seem to have a problem with silence and guilt, but everyone else in town has had that knowledge festering away in their hearts for four years.

Pete decides that he's not going to live a life of shame and fear (at least about the murder, if my theory about that character is right) and calls his sister Liz to enlist her in a plan to get Macreedy out of town. Smith's gang, thinking ahead, have severed all the phone lines out of town and the telegraph man is in their back pocket. Now that word will inevitably spread about Pete spilling the beans, he needs to save Macreedy's life if he wants to save his own.

Hector gets knocked out (he might not have been as tough as Coley, but a brass firehose nozzle to the jawbone will ruin anybody's day) and Macreedy makes a run for it in Liz's Jeep (with her driving). Macreedy was perfectly willing to cut and run without taking Smith on (he's a realist and just planning to escape with his life and live to fight another day rather than cleaning up the whole town himself). But when Liz stops at Adobe Flat to get water for the radiator Smith is waiting there with the headlights from his car illuminating the Jeep and its occupants. He's also got a rifle, and Liz is too sheltered and naive to realize that after Smith shoots Macreedy he's got one more witness to eliminate, even if she did everything she was supposed to in order to set up this murder.

If Macreedy wants to live another ten minutes he'll have to figure out a way to overcome Smith while outgunned, and he'll have to do it literally single-handedly. But he's seen action in at least one war, and the tinpot dictator of a town with a population you can count on both fingers isn't a match for a genuinely tough grownup. Smith winds up burning, just as he deserves (shouting"Save me!" to the person he was trying to shoot as a way to show just what a sniveling little prick he was), and Macreedy goes back to Black Rock to give the bad news to Pete about his sister (and the worse news about who's morally to blame for her death) and drop Smith off at the jail (the sheriff found some vertebrae somewhere and was waiting for Smith with a gun outside his office). Fittingly enough, Smith's punishment is that he gets exposed and faces the law (along with his two lackeys) rather than just getting killed.

And the next morning, the Streamliner's stopping at Black Rock for the second time in four years, taking John Macreedy away into the rest of his life and leaving a town where the poison's finally been lanced out of its system.

Man, they just don't make 'em like this any more. If you're a fan of tense old action movies, John Sturges is your guy. He didn't just direct this, but helmed The Magnificent Seven five years later and The Great Escape three years after that. Both of those movies show off his flair for big casts, small character work, vast scenery and screw-tightening suspense as the plot machinery goes into action. (They also tend not to have a lot of women in them; I don't believe The Great Escape has a single female character and there aren't more than two or three in the aforementioned Western). But he did a fantastic job taking elements of the Western (a man rides into town and brings order, then leaves) while blending them with film noir (a flawed protagonist digs into dark events that other people want to keep concealed) and comes up with something much greater than the sum of its parts. It's a noir film set in the brutal heat and light of a California summer and a Western set in the very recent past rather than the mythical late 1800s. It's a look at how the sins of the past eat away at the present like acid and it's a celebration of old-fashioned badasses taking on people who only appear tough because everyone around them is even weaker and less impressive than the ringleader is.


  1. If you'd like to try some offbeat Sturges sometime, give THE SATAN BUG a spin.

  2. Replies
    1. Oh, you're going to LOVE The Satan Bug. It's just-over-the-horizon sci-fi in the techno-thriller mode, and it has Cold War cooties all over it. There's a review on my site if you want a more detailed take.

    2. I remember reading that a while back and thinking it sounded keen (I think I even have a deteriorating paperback of the novel the movie was based on somewhere in the Telstarchives). I'm certainly very interested.

  3. Tim, your blog has officially become my source for browsing movies, specifically when I have no idea what I'm looking for... But somehow I always find it! This movie is next on the list. A big thanks for what you do!!

    1. Thank you so much! Originally I wanted to use the Checkpoint as a cold war film crit blog, but now I'm just evangelizing about movies to people. Hearing that someone decided to check out a film because they read the review makes my week. :)