Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

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Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) (1987)

Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) – 1987

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk

Tackling the spiritual subject of the lives of Angels and their influence on the lives of human beings, Wings of Desire follows  Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) as he becomes fascinated with and eventually falls in love with a young trapeze artist (Marion Played by Solveig Dommartin) performing in West Berlin (pre-fall of the Berlin Wall).  The film aspires to much more than simplistic confirmation of faith or belief.  Instead, Wim Wenders struggles with the ideas of how his angel characters experience the world while avoiding the cliché of making them infallible beings of infinite grace and experience.

Firstly, if the story seems familiar, you might be thinking of the far inferior re-make, City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.  If you haven’t seen the re-make, congratulations, if you have, at least it can only go up hill by watching this film after the fact.  The story follows an angel named Damiel who, along with his fellow angel Cassiel, roams the city following humans through all stages of their daily and life-changing experiences.  As the story progresses, Damiel expresses his desire to experience the things that people do everyday (food, love, human contact, tactile sensations, pain, smells, etc…), and his ultimate desire to leave his angelic status behind and become human.

The look of the film mirrors the pacing and the story in-so-much-as it is very lyrical and flowing.  The world of the angels is very stark, and contrasty, filmed entirely in a silky black and white.  Every crag and wrinkle of the people that they follow are visible, just as it would appear to an omnipresent, all-seeing angel.  The human world, however, is filmed in lush, saturated color.  Every joy, and mood, and taste, and experience of the human condition is on display visually, contrasted with the stark black and white world of absolutes.  The passion and experience that these visuals convey, represent the question that Damiel is wrestling with throughout the entire movie.  Is a life of passion, and emotion more satisfying than a life of eternal order, and knowledge, when each is separated from the other.  Is there a halfway point between the two worlds, and if so, do the benefits of one out-weigh the other.

I have to say that I didn’t really notice the music in this film, with the exception of the very obvious concert scene featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and that isn’t necessarily bad, it just is.  Overall the film seemed very quiet and relied heavily on the weight of silence and the power of dialogue.  This means that you don’t get the standard emotional swell of music when you are supposed to feel happy, or sad, or angry.  Since you still feel these emotions, it is clear that despite the absence of these musical cues, the movie is strong enough to get across its points without them.

One other element that may seem familiar is the lead actor, Bruno Ganz.  If he seems familiar, it might be because he is a famous face in modern German cinema, most famously for playing Hitler in the film Downfall.  His power as an actor is obvious when you watch him on-screen.  For a film that is so visually striking as this one, when you find yourself trying to choose whether to look at the beautiful scenery or keeping your eye on the main actor, you know that you’re watching a dynamic performer.  The actor (or actress if you prefer) who plays Marion, Solveig Dommartin, imbues the role with a luminosity that makes you believe an angel might choose a mortal life.  Her wistful carefree nature provides the romance of the story, while ironically it is Ganz who provides the audience with necessary grounding and realism.

Wings of Desire is a slow-paced film, one that relishes the opportunity to show the characters, situations, and the world that it’s about, but it is very worth the time and energy spent watching it.  Wim Wender’s visual poem to the city of Berlin is a definite influence on indie movement in the films of the early nineties, and on into the 2000s and beyond.