Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock and Lonely Are the Brave

No clever commentary, other than wondering how Lonely Are the Brave isn't available on DVD. Sure, it's Universal and B&W, and they don't seem to be too keen on digging through their catalog for more obscure titles like that unless they can release the movies in some sort of three-pack. You'd think Kirk Douglas in a movie from the writer of Spartacus might have been worth a look, though.

Bad Day at Black Rock

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects)

Check out the cast on this movie: Spencer Tracy. Lee Marvin. Ernest Borgnine. Anne Francis. Robert Ryan. Walter Brennan. That's not quite a bloated epic cast, especially since a few of them were still on their way up. It catches the eye in retrospect, though, doesn't it? It's certainly worth checking out based on the cast alone, especially since the audience will get a tight little thriller for its trouble.

A few months after the end of World War II, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock, Arizona, which causes something of a stir in the tiny town; no-one has done that in something like four years. He's looking for a Joe Komoko, which puts the residents even more on edge, and downright uncooperative. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) seems to be the ringleader, giving Macreedy "friendly advice" to leave things alone, while Hector David (Lee Marvin) and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) are more overtly hostile. Doctor/vet/undertaker T.R. Veile (Walter Brennan) and layabout sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) are more sympathetic, but are pretty pointedly ignorant. Pretty young mechanic Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) doesn't get the memo before renting him a jeep, and his trip out to the Komoko homestead at Adobe Flats has the townspeople even more determined to figure out just who Macreedy is and why he's so interested in Komoko.

Black Rock upends a lot of genre expectations. It's structured as a mystery, it turns that form right on its head: The film couldn't be much more clear from the beginning on who committed which crime, so we spend a lot more time puzzling out the history and motivations of the sleuth than the suspects. The setting is a ramshackle western town, but the movie takes place smack in the middle of the 20th century. It's full of murky film noir morality and betrayals, but scenes occur in broad daylight. Sure, many westerns are technically crime films; it's still unusual to see the two blended in this way.

It works, though, because the writers have a pretty reliable engine with which to run the story: Secrets, by their nature, breed mistrust. Black Rock initially seems to be in a state of uncomfortable equilibrium, but Macreedy is throwing that off even before he specifically expresses interest in Komoko, and his very presence soon begins to fracture the town in addition to making him a target. What's really impressive is how the movie, despite a short running time (81 minutes!), finds the time to trouble the souls of most of its characters and see how each reacts individually.

Spencer Tracy is a pleasure as Macreedy, grumping his way through the movie with his left arm in a pocket the whole time to signify an amputated hand. It's emasculating for him to be looked at as a cripple, so he and he certainly has the air of a man who won't start any more trouble than he has to, but will by god finish it. Robert Ryan takes the opposite tack as Smith, appearing calm throughout, confident of the hold he has on his town. When he does lose his cool, it's a temporary thing, and the effect is to make him seem even colder afterward.

As good as they are, the colorful supporting cast is what really makes the film stand out. Smith's main henchmen, for instance, are played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine before they became stars in their own right. Marvin intimidates; he plays Hector as having something close to Smith's self-control but more willing to overtly throw his weight around. Borgnine is the film's loose cannon, laughing maniacally as he tries to get rid of Macreedy. John Ericson is good as the young and uncertain member of the crew, while Ann Francis is pure brass as his little sister. Dean Jagger is pitiable as the drunk of a sheriff, and Walter Brennan lively as the closest thing the town has to a conscience.

Director John Sturges doesn't waste a drop of any of these ingredients; he's got the town and audience on edge right from the very beginning, pushing the tension every second he gets. He stages three quality action scenes - Macreedy does all right for a guy with one hand - but the movie never seems like just the means to connect them.

Also at EFC, along with one other review.

Lonely Are the Brave

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects)

Lonely Are the Brave has a really fantastic opening: A cowboy breaking a horse on the open range, suitably weathered, taking a nap with his hat pulled down over his eyes. It could come out of any of a hundred westerns, except that when the cowboy removes his hat and looks up, there are jet contrails in the sky, indicating that it's the present (that is, the 1960s), rather than a century earlier.

That cowboy is John W. "Jack" Burns (Kirk Douglas), and he's been making his way to New Mexico, where old friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) is in jail for helping some illegal immigrants. Bondi's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) informs him that there's no visiting day before Bondi is to be sent upstate to prison, so Jack gets into a bar fight in order to be tossed in there with him. Bondi doesn't want any part of Jack's plan to help him escape - serving his two-year sentence beats the five tacked on for a jailbreak - but Jack doesn't figure he can handle the year he's facing for assaulting a police officer. He escapes, but that puts Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) on his trail, with all the modern technology available.

Kirk Douglas is wonderful in this role. Jack is bigger than life in a lot of ways, a personification of the old West (or at least, the romanticized version of it). He's affable, friendly with just about everyone; even when things come to blows, he'll fight with one hand behind his back if his opponent is a one-armed man or stoically take a beating. It's very easy to be in awe of Jack, and enjoy how he flummoxes the police by not carrying any sort of ID. Douglas reveals the downside of being a throwback slowly; we see him uncomfortable in Jerry's kitchen, and though there's no one scene where he or anyone comes out and says it, we see that underneath his Western ruggedness and charm, Jack is afraid of the modern world.

It makes us re-examine him as the film goes on, and maybe view some of his free-spiritedness as antisocial behavior, although it's hard to view him terribly negatively - he means no-one any harm and comes across as someone who couldn't be any other way even if he were to try. It makes the second half more interesting, because we're not only never quite sure which way the manhunt (and its flip side, Jack's dash to Mexico) will go. Is this the sort of movie that paints Jack as an anachronism that is ultimately no match for the modern world, or celebrates his indomitable spirit (either by him escaping or by him going out in a blaze of glory)? Will that come at a price? Director David Miller and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo don't tip their hands until very late in the game, so there's quite a bit of suspense attached to each move Jack makes.

It's not entirely Kirk Douglas's show; there's a nice cast of (then) up-and-coming actors supporting him. There's Gena Rowlands as the charming Jerry Bondi, and Michael Kane as her husband. There's early work by Carroll O'Connor (as a truck driver in a seemingly separate subplot) and George Kennedy (as a sadistic guard/deputy); both just what is needed from their smaller parts. And then there's Walter Matthau, a delight as the sheriff pursuing Jack. Matthau provides a bit of comic relief just from the annoyed looks he gives Johnson's deputy, but never plays up the comedy so much that we don't think of him as smart. He's a worthy and respectful adversary.

Miller ends the film with an image nearly as iconic as the first, with nary a false step in between. Aside from being the home of Douglas's own favorite roles, Lonely Are the Brave is a loving but clear-eyed eulogy for the Old West as well as a highly entertaining chase film.

Also at EFC.

1 comment:

newman said...

completely agree with review, well said,