Stagecoach To Somewhere – ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’

The mystery begins immediately with the very first words in the titles.  What is Spencer Tracy doing in a 76 minute B movie Western?   A clue arrives at the end of the title Bad Day at Black Rocksequence, at the moment that the head on train lets the audience know that their expectations will be pushed aside.  The clue is the name of the producer, Dore Schary.  In the fifties, MGM was concerned about the impact of TV on its receipts.  It responded by bringing in Schary to produce movies that would drag TV viewers into the cinema.  Schary was reputed to be a typically unpleasant cinema mogul.  He was also a liberal activist.   Presumably, he was tempted by the idea of a Western that would protest against racism and the simple faith in pioneer violence.

‘Bad Day At Black Rock’ has been described as classic Hollywood cinema, and it is masterful.  The film can be compared with the enjoyable but much inferior ‘Key Largo’.   In both films, a man returns from the war to meet the relatives of a fallen comrade.  Soon the returning soldier is obliged to defend democracy against the brutal.   In ‘Largo’, though, virtue is obvious.  It exists within the brave hero and the decent ordinary folk who want to protect the Native Americans from the hurricane.   The existence of a downtrodden tribe in the noir film that strongly resembles ‘Black Rock’ is no coincidence.

Within ‘Black Rock’, the tension is brilliantly controlled and the moments of violence are satisfying if not always credible.   But the film is unusual.  Narrative fluency is often ignored and the film ends as it begins with unresolved mysteries.    There is so much that we are left to ponder.   Why does Reno Smith visit LA from time to time and why do the wives only appear in the final shot when McCready finally leaves?   Scene from Bad Day at Black RockB movies depend on narrative grip and clarity but in ‘Black Rock’ the audience is treated with a contempt normally exhibited by European auteur directors.   McCready has an amputated arm but Tracy walks around looking like a man only pretending that he is one-armed.  Indeed, to ensure that we remain baffled, one of the characters says, ‘Maybe he just holds his hand that way.’   If we think carefully, we realise that Tracy is not an old actor miscast as a de-mobbed soldier but an ex-professional military man.  It is made explicit at the end when Tracy says that he is retired but for most of the film the audience is like the guilty citizens of the town.   It is obliged to puzzle over the odd contradictions of the character that has left the train. Only in the final encounter in the cave when we witness the military expertise of McCready are we persuaded.  In one scene, Doc visits the sheriff who is sitting at his desk and looking at an old photograph.  The sheriff puts the photograph to one side.  We do not see the photograph.  This is not the style of classic Hollywood.  Instead, we have deliberate art house obscurity.  The unexplained is important.   The murder of Liz Wirth is inadequately justified by Reno.   Like an audience for a film by Luc Godard we have to understand how Liz has been misshaped and finally destroyed by violence and masculinity.  If we want sense, we have to think it through.

Most agree that the film is about masculinity, the American West and the world that will follow the defeat of fascism.  The movie is a Western set in the modern age.  It was made in 1955 but the action may have occurred earlier.  It is unlikely that McCready would have waited 10 years to return the medal to Komoko, the Japanese farmer killed by Reno Smith and his lackeys.   McCready, the professional military man whose own violence is governed by a strict code of practice and self-restraint, is the alternative to the impulsive Western hero of adolescent fantasy.    Reno Smith is wrong.  The world has to change and we have to accommodate strangers.  Today, it will appear odd that an ex-army man is used to represent the strength of liberal thinking but in 1955, and before Vietnam and other horrors, the military was viewed differently.  It had won a demanding battle against a fierce enemy and, equally important, had played a key role in helping to create the social democracies demanded by returning warriors.  ‘Black Rock’ is often ambiguous but it is clear on one issue.  The romance of the West has been vanquished by the experience of the Second World War.  The West has to learn from the bureaucratic military. Doc understands which is why he asks for Komoko’s medal at the end of the film.

Inevitably, masculinity is defined through violence.  This is a Western.  Good men are required to be more than passive.   But the contest is not about superior strength.  DocBad Day to beat Hector uses unequal weaponry.  McCready survives in the cave through making a Molotov cocktail and reinventing the showdown as a military encounter. ‘Black Rock’ is acknowledged as being anti-Western but it is more subversive than that.  McCready does not believe in heroism.   He wants to run away, not only from Black Rock but also America.  But, despite his intentions, he is the avenger that fate decrees.    McCready will not escape in the funeral hearse as planned.  His wish for death will not be acknowledged.  Instead, he is obliged to meet and defeat Reno.  McCready sets fire to Reno who previously had burnt to death Komoko.  Nobody could have guessed but, not inappropriately, the black suit and trilby of McCready anticipate the priest in ‘The Exorcist’.

Consistent with the unexplained details are the uneven consequences at the end of the film.  The young brother and sister suffer badly.  They are named Wirth so perhaps because of their youth they are more capable.  Liz who initially welcomed McCready is killed without ceremony.  The brother, who has played a key part in helping Reno and his gang to be overcome, is bundled into a police car with no sympathy.   Liberalism is better than violence but the consequences can still be unpredictable.

Edward Hopper painting

Edward Hopper painting

The messages and symbolism within ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’ are for some overshadowed by its style and form.  The dialogue is economical and the widescreen is used perfectly to provide irresistible compositions of men waiting and observing.   The images in the film are influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper.   This is not, though, John Sturges, the director, merely adding visual sophistication.  The film transcends the pictorial.    Hopper knew how time and inconsequence isolate human beings.   This understanding is crucial to ‘Black Rock’.    Reno has a meeting with the other men to discuss how they should respond to McCready.  It is held in the open air and the characters are dotted around a frame bordered by a Western landscape.  The open air between the men is important.  The men are connected, which is why they make a balanced composition, but not by intimacy and friendship.  This is why the men stand apart.  Their links are those of the evil and the powerful, their heartless pacts and alliances.

The liberalism that left its mark on American culture subsequently struggled.  Ronald Reagan appeared and pretended that Reno and his kind had always been heroes and that we should not worry about their victims.  Reagan was handsome and had a fine voice.  More than once he wore a cowboy hat.


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Elvis Presley Challenge No. 49 – Delbert McClinton

DelbertPaul Simon told us that he visited Graceland but he was coy about what he had on his feet.   I wore cowboy boots.  Not the black boots that Elvis favoured.  Mine were tan with ornate etchings.   I bought them in Amarillo.  I walked into a shop to buy a belt.  The salesman was all Southern charm and I left with a pair of boots.  I resisted the Stetson.  The cowboy boots were fine.  They made the denims hang well and they closed the gap between me and six feet.   Of course, everybody else wore boots.  All the men were two inches taller.    I drove all around the States wearing those boots, never once thinking that they may not be suitable for driving.   Tan cowboy boots, a pair of denims and a white T shirt is not Elvis but it is what I wore at Graceland and the Sun and American Sound Studios.  Elvis hardly wore denims.  He did not like clothes that made him anonymous.

Amarillo is pronounced aa-mah-rii-yo in Spanish.  ‘Lone Star’ is a fine movie about race relations in Texas.   Imagine left Lone Star posterwing polemic and Little Willie John and Freddie Fender on the soundtrack.  ‘Lone Star’ is not set in Amarillio.   The action takes place on the border between the States and Mexico.    ‘Lone Star’ is sympathetic to the minorities.  It implies that a responsible Texan would make the effort to be fluent in Spanish.

I have no idea whether Delbert McClinton speaks Spanish.  He may even be right wing and vote Republican although his fans would be surprised if he did.  To his British fans, McClinton is an all American working class hero.   He has good hair and he is photogenic.  He looks cool.  Usually, he wears cowboy boots, denims and a T shirt.  Occasionally, presumably if he is going somewhere important or has his lady to impress, he will wear a plain shirt with collar and cuffs.  When I saw him on stage in the Town and Country Club in London he was in T shirt mode.   He also drank a couple of cans of the appalling American Budweiser.  He is a man who appreciates his roots and to him those roots are more important than a continual quest to root out the exotic.  McClinton is a rhythm and blues singer.   His music reflects the world which seduced him.    He lacks Delbert McClintonthe curiosity of some dedicated musicians but this is only because he understands romance.  As the great German writer Hermann Broch wrote in his essential ‘Sleepwalker Trilogy’, the romantic needs limits and boundaries.   The curious like Simon dashing off to South Africa to add fresh rhythms to his records will make discoveries.   But the romantics, those attached to their roots, are also important.  The music of McClinton is like his clothes.  It is ideological.  The musicians on his records are black and white but they are usually from the Southern states.   He is not without invention but what he adds to his music only exists to enrich the genre, something he refines through his own American experience.

Without the waywardness of Elvis he avoids the sentimental.  He began backing blues singers like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.  McClinton can deliver a poignant ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ but he is unable to be tender.  His voice has a rough barroom edge that suits the music he plays, tough rhythm and blues and soul ballads which have just enough country influence to keep everyone in the bar happy.  The songs are realistic.  In his rockers, he either

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

celebrates or looks at life with wry amusement.  When he slows down he remembers why relationships are important.  He rarely sings about love.  Elvis is the introvert who is determined to understand his feelings and his bruised heart.  McClinton sings about life.  His songs deal with dependency, triumphs, celebration, mistakes and regret.  Inevitably, he has his weak moments.  His albums can sometimes run out of steam and the welcome realism is occasionally spoilt by a sense of overdeveloped male entitlement.  This is demonstrated in the appalling ‘Sending Me Angels’ where McClinton acknowledges the women sent to comfort his flawed masculinity.  But if that is a mistake and his specific identity limits what he can achieve on his albums, he is always listenable.   His output ranges from the irresistible, ‘Shot From The Saddle’ has a compelling groove’, to the merely toe tapping listenable, the music on his ‘Plain From The Heart’ album.    It is a form of consistency.   Within it, though, there have been many moments to make him proud.  ‘Two Bottles Of Wine’ which is about failure and the solace of alcohol is a song that compares with the very best.  Recently, he recorded ‘Down In Mexico’.  This addictive tale of a Vegas robbery mixes splendidly film noir and ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Lennon playing the harmonicaDelbert McClinton is based in Fort Worth but he is from Lubbock, Texas, like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely.   He is popular in his home state but he never quite made the really big time.  He had one top 40 hit, ‘Giving It Up For Your Love’, and a top ten hit, ‘Tell Me About It’, but that required him to duet with Tanya Tucker.   His life may not have been what he dreamed.  It has not consisted of back to back hits, mansions and limousines.  He may even feel resentful about how the more successful have sometimes taken advantage.  He taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica and Elvis half stole his arrangement of the Johnny Ace hit, ‘Pledging My Love’.

He still sounds positive.  There is no trace in his live performances of the disillusionment that is obvious in the later shows of Elvis.  I always missed McClinton when I was in Texas.  I had to wait for him to visit England.  He was worth the wait.  His fabulous show included a nine piece band as I knew it would.   Okay, I read these things but the cowboy boots made the small band obligatory.

Despite the reading, I doubt if I will ever know whether Delbert learnt to speak Spanish.   (I sometimes call him by his first name because I have all his albums.)   I hope he did.   He should watch a film called ‘El Sueno Derrotado’.  It is a documentary and it mixes archive material and interviews with old timers who remember the Spanish Civil War, the El Sueno DerrotadoFrench Resistance, the Second World War and the concentration camps.   The film captures the horror as it intends but it does more.  It reminds us that there is no exultation in success and achievement.  It exists only in endurance.  McClinton may not have had the hits but he managed to always earn a living as a musician.  He has loyal fans and the respect of critics.  He has done it by staying loyal to what is best about the people of his homeland, their sense of community and their music.  He has preserved not only his talent but the romance.  Delbert McClinton is entitled to his exultation because he earned it and because he has prevailed.  Elvis was talented but he was also exotica.  This was why he triumphed but later perished.   It is what they call success.


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And now for some Delbert: