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Bad Day at Black Rock
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Bad Day at Black Rock,Bad Day at Black Rock

Behind the Camera On BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

The Bad Day at Black Rock production was budgeted at $1.3 million.

This was the first MGM film to be shot in Cinemascope. According to director John Sturges's commentary track on the Criterion Laserdisc release, it was also filmed at the same time in the standard 4:3 ratio version because studio executives still weren't sure how well the wide screen format would work. That version was never released.

It was decided to build the town set and shoot on location at Lone Pine, one of the most used locations for Westerns and other pictures throughout film history. The area, at the foot of Mount Whitney on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas, was deemed suitable for its remoteness and the fact that it had an unused stretch of track that once connected it to Los Angeles; this was a must for the opening and closing sequences featuring the arrival and departure of the Streamliner.

Southern Pacific railway agreed to run the train to Lone Pine for $5,500 and the cost of 265 round-trip passenger tickets. According to Sturges, the train had to be run backwards––light cars first, engine in the rear––and slowly, due to concerns about some old bridges, taking about 18 hours to get there from the city.

Ironically, the location was just seven miles from Manzanar Relocation Camp, where 10,000 Japanese Americans had been interned during World War II.

The Bad Day at Black Rock shoot was scheduled for late June through early July to avoid Lone Pine's August highs of 115 and the oppressive humidity that moves in during the month. During the 21 days on location, the temperature climbed to over 100 degrees at times.

It was decided that Bad Day at Black Rock would have no music score, only ambient sounds––clock chimes, prairie winds, etc.––a method that had been employed on MGM's Executive Suite (1954). Schary described the vision in his autobiography: "First the quiet speck of a station in the heart of desolation. A wind blowing, a yowl of coyote, the far-off-horn of a diesel engine, then the roar of the train. The music department hated me."

The shooting script called for "loafers" (onlookers, bystanders, etc.) but Sturges kept removing them, preferring to accent the town's desolation with a minimal cast of characters. He kept removing background extras––a woman hanging out her laundry, someone driving by––but did shoot a few scenes that had incidental extras, such as a boy called TJ.

Spencer Tracy insisted on wearing clothes throughout the film that he bought himself off the rack. He thought nothing the wardrobe department showed him was worn enough, so he went to a discount store in downtown Los Angeles and bought two identical suits.

Tracy used to go off by himself into the desert and read the whole script aloud two or three times until he really understood what the picture was about.

Assistant Director Joel Freeman said Tracy was the only cast member who was not fully cooperative on set. He told Sturges to avoid close-ups (probably because of his age) and hated to do additional takes. In the garage sequence between him and Robert Ryan, Sturges called for a second take. Tracy asked the crew if they had understood him in the scene. When they said yes, he refused to shoot it again. Sturges remained patient, however, and accommodated the star as he had on their previous picture, The People Against O'Hara (1951). "With Spence, you could print his first rehearsal," he said, noting that he never had to tell his star how to play a scene.

Tracy had a hard time with the heat and altitude, exacerbated by his high blood pressure and, according to co-star Anne Francis, being on the wagon, which she said "added to his irritability."

The heat left everyone exhausted, "too damn hot to party," in Ernest Borgnine's words, but Tracy invited everyone to his hotel room for cocktail hour every day, even though he drank only 7-Up. (The alcoholic actor usually abstained while working but often went on binges after a production wrapped.)

Two cast members who didn't get along at all, largely for political reasons, were the liberal Tracy and the archconservative Walter Brennan, who made the mistake of criticizing Katharine Hepburn's public outspokenness against the McCarthy hearings in Congress. The next day, during blocking of one scene, the two (playing allies in the picture) weren't speaking and relayed their brittle and sniping communications through director Sturges. Brennan later taunted Tracy by walking by holding up three fingers, an indication of his three Academy Awards (for Best Supporting Actor) versus Tracy's two Best Actor Oscars®.

Although he generally got along with the rest of the cast, Tracy could be moody and would give other actors the cold shoulder for days over some slight, real or imagined. One time, Anne Francis and Robert Ryan borrowed his car to get hamburgers. The next morning Tracy complained the car was parked crookedly. Francis also said she got the silent treatment because Tracy falsely suspected her of having an affair with Ryan. Francis got even during the shooting of the scene where she drives Tracy's character to Adobe Flats (home of the missing Japanese farmer). She gunned the car and took a big road bump at full speed, almost dumping her co-star in the road; despite this, he stayed firmly in character and never removed his unusable left hand from his pocket. She later said Tracy became friendly with her again after that incident.

Tracy had great respect for Robert Ryan as an actor. Kaufman recalled Tracy said to him one day, "Bob is so good in this part, he scares the hell out of me." When Kaufman expressed the same, Tracy replied, "That's good. It means he'll scare the hell out of the audience, too."

Sturges had scheduled an entire day for the scene in which Tracy's character tries to find out from Ryan's what happened to the Japanese farmer. The two were so good, however, that shooting was completed by nine in the morning. An amazed Sturges called for a print and started to move on to another set-up, but Tracy stopped him, insisting the schedule called only for the one scene that day. "Bob, let's take off," he said to Ryan, and the two left the set, forcing Sturges to try to shoot around Tracy, who was in nearly every scene.

Borgnine always referred to Tracy as "Mr. Tracy," never by his first name. "I was in awe of him," he said. "To me, he was the world's greatest actor, and my God, here I am working with the man."

The most difficult action sequences of Bad Day at Black Rock were shot first. The car chase between Borgnine and Tracy, inspired by Sturges's memory of almost being run off the road by a drunk driver in college, took two days. The climactic nighttime ambush took a day and a half. The scene, photographed at night with every available light, employed explosive caps to ignite Robert Ryan's stunt double after he's hit with a Molotov cocktail. The double was smeared with petroleum jelly and outfitted in a protective asbestos suit and gloves, but he made the mistake of inhaling and scorched his lungs. Screaming for help, he was rushed to the hospital but back on set the next day, in some pain but more frightened about the prospect of almost being suffocated.

Initially, the aftermath of the ambush was to have Ryan's body strapped to the front of Tracy's car, a deliberate irony playing on the character's reputation as a hunter. But Sturges decided it was too self-conscious.

With location work completed, the Bad Day at Black Rock production returned to the studio in August to shoot interiors.

The showdown between Tracy's and Borgnine's characters in the cafe was done with stunt doubles. Tracy refused to do it himself because, as he warned Sturges, he had been known to get too involved in fight scenes on previous productions and neglected to pull his punches properly, breaking one actor's jaw and knocking another's teeth out (Tracy's age and illness likely had something to do with his refusal in this case, too). Sturges decided to shoot the sequence in full frame with minimal cuts and reverse angles. But he was not happy with Tracy's double, stunt driver Cary Lofton. The nature of the fight had to be toned down a bit, too, thanks to Production Code restrictions on violence. The script has Tracy's character first give his nemesis a sharp karate chop to the neck, sending him gasping and reeling, then against the nose, shattering it and spilling blood all over him as he sinks into unconsciousness. Instead, the chop was restrained, resulting in a slight nose bleed, and when Borgnine's incensed character rushes in again, he gets a couple more chops to the stomach and neck that sends him reeling through the building's screen door.

Borgnine did the crash through the door himself, expecting it to swing open as he sailed through it into the street. But without the actor's knowledge, Sturges nailed the door shut. The momentum ripped it from its hinges, and it ended up hanging on the understandably shocked Borgnine like a picture frame which provided the desired natural reaction from the actor. "Borgnine has never forgiven me for that," Sturges recalled.

When Tracy saw the rushes, he thought the fight was preposterous. He didn't believe his character could disable his enemy that quickly and easily until Sturges showed the footage to a Marine instructor who not only confirmed the effectiveness of the karate method but told Tracy the blow as executed would have killed his opponent in real life.

"Tracy is great in that [fight] scene," Sturges later noted (in Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges by Glenn Lovell). "Up until he hits Borgnine, he's polite, apologizes for things. He's purely reactive. I learned that from George Stevens's Giant [1956]. James Dean didn't do anything but react to all the things that are done to him. Shane [1953], too. Ladd doesn't do anything until the end of the picture when he's forced to return.... Spence knew all this. That's why he was such a good actor." Despite Sturges's generosity toward a fellow director after the fact, it's hard to see how Giant could have influenced this film since Stevens's movie wasn't even released until nearly two years after Black Rock.

Sturges did credit Stevens with advice that he said made for compelling compositions that were ideal for the widescreen process. "[Stevens] taught me...always have a backup location, don't commit; stage according to what you see." That method, he said, allows for serendipitous shots that are never specified in the script but add much to the mood and dynamic of a film. "That's why I never used storyboards, like Hitchcock. You do that, you're committed to a shot." He did, however, do rough sketches of actor and camera placements and diagram the meeting between Reno Smith and the others at the tracks, according to Lovell.

The principal photography on Bad Day at Black Rock wrapped in late August. Sturges felt good about the shoot and later said he never doubted that it would be an outstanding film.

The movie had three previews in the fall of 1954. The first two screened the film as originally conceived, without the aerial train shots or opening music that were later added, beginning with a shot of Tracy stepping off the Streamliner train and walking down Main Street of Black Rock, accompanied only by the sound of the wind. There was also a cutaway to the depot clock, as in High Noon (1952), the movie to which this is most often compared. Many in the audience at the first preview thought the opening was too abrupt and at least 25 percent of them commented that they wouldn't recommend the picture to anyone (this percentage was higher among women viewers). Bad Day at Black Rock faired slightly better in the second preview, but it was clear the picture wasn't working without music and no lead-in to the opening scene in the remote town. Associate producer Herman Hoffman came up with the idea of beginning with aerial shots of the train speeding through the desert.

Sturges had already moved on to his next film, The Scarlet Coat (1955), so Hoffman took charge of filming the opening. The plan was to shoot the train hurtling toward the audience, almost like a 3-D movie. But it would have been deadly to attempt a helicopter maneuver into the path of a speeding locomotive. Stunt flier Paul Mantz offered the perfect solution: have the train running backwards, fly the copter over the retreating engine, then project the footage in reverse. "It's a helluva shot," Sturges later said, "but I didn't make it."

It was also decided to add a score after all to Bad Day at Black Rock, and MGM music supervisor Johnny Green suggested Andre Previn, who started at the studio as an arranger at the age of 16 and by this time, eight years later, had already contributed to the scores of 16 pictures in almost every style and genre. Dore Schary indicated he wanted "something loud, throbbing, and martial in undertone" for the opening. After watching the film, Previn came up with what we hear on the soundtrack today, the "vaguely dissonant and sinister score" played by brass instruments.

by Rob Nixon

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