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Bad Day at Black Rock

John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is curiously paradoxical. It was MGM's first CinemaScope picture, and yet it's 81 minute long and revolves around a small ensemble — it's an epic scope for a chamber piece. And yet this odd design works well; the film builds paranoia out of the open spaces and staging that John Carpenter and John McTiernan found useful (both future practitioners of Sturges's economical style). Spencer Tracy stars as John J. Macreedy (Carpenter must have been a fan of this title, since he named the main character in his 1982 version of The Thing R.J. MacReady), a one-armed man who stops in the small town of Black Rock looking for a place called Adobe Flats. This is the first time a train has stopped in Black Rock in four years, and the townsfolk eye Macreedy with suspicion and contempt. The town is headed up by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), and he doesn't take kindly to strangers, while the town's sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) is a drunk, and the town's doctor T.R. Velie Jr. (Walter Brennan) is kindly but ineffectual. The town only has one woman, gas station attendant Liz Wirth (Anne Francis), while Smith has two flunkies that act as his muscle (Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine). It seems the town has a secret involving Abode Flats, and no one wants Macreedy to find out what it is. But as cagey as the townspeople are, Macreedy is just as tight-lipped about his reasons for being there. Sturges was a master of widescreen framing — one of the first men to work with CinemaScope — and here he puts a lot of thought into his staging, understanding how the geography of space can create tension and excitement. It's an influence that can be seen in the works of Carpenter and McTiernan, but they also aped Sturges's no-nonsense style and black humor, both of which permeate throughout this picture (the film is often funny — one of Tracy's best lines is "You're not only wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice.") Black Rock also was influential as the seminal neo-western, being one of the first movies to put its cowboys against a modern backdrop. But it's nonetheless a modest film, a B-picture with a great cast and a clever script — the exact sort of project from which great artists should, and do, steal. Part of Warner Home Video's "Controversial Classics Collection," Bad Day at Black Rock is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (2.55:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Extras include an audio commentary by Dana Poland and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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