34 Things We Learned from John Sturges’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ Commentary

Commentary Commentary

“You have to be the audience if you want to be the director.”

Warner Archive recently released John Sturges’ fantastic 1955 film to Blu-ray, and it’s worth a blind buy for fans and those who haven’t seen it yet alike. It was my first time watching, and while the disc includes a commentary track I was told that one featuring the director himself was the higher priority. Paul Thomas Anderson himself credits it with being more valuable than twenty years of film school. Sadly, it’s only available on the Criterion Laserdisc… thankfully, we live in the age of the internet.

Keep reading to see what I heard on John Sturges’ commentary for Bad Day at Black Rock.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Commentator: John Sturges (director)

1. The original opening showed the various locals in Black Rock sitting around and doing nothing, unaware that the train will be stopping in town. An agent told Sturges that the title sequence was “dreary” and suggested a shot of the train “roaring in” instead to capture the momentum. Sturges didn’t shoot this new opening.

2. The big mountain visible in the background is Mt. Whitney.

3. The little town they built for the film is set in an area used for numerous Hollywood westerns thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles, the endless sunshine, and its desolate look. Sturges made five films here, and he doubts anyone can tell thanks to the locale’s varied views.

4. To get the train up there they had to use tracks that hadn’t been used in 25 to 30 years. “And when it was used, it didn’t carry these big, heavy monsters.” They had to bring it up carefully, slowly, and as if they were carrying a “nuclear bomb.”

5. He recalls the studio being more enamored with advances in 3D than in the use of widescreen and Panavision. They said he could do widescreen for his next picture but were disappointed it was this story with hardly anyone in it. He says that to them “it meant thousands of extras, thousands of togas, amphitheaters with Christians being mauled by lions.” They asked him what he was going to do with “all that space.”

6. He says Spencer Tracy was such a fantastic actor and engrossed viewers so well in a scene that he himself would “get so caught up I’d forget to say ‘cut!’” Other actors would approach Sturges surprised at the impact Tracy’s presence and performance had on their own.

7. Tracy would go out into the desert surrounding the set and read the script to himself aloud to understand the whole. “The full script, not just his part.”

8. The scene with Macreedy (Tracy) in the bathroom was originally longer and featured him pulling out his useless arm to clean it. “That was a mistake. We didn’t have to demonstrate it was useless,” he says meaning the script and Tracy’s performance were convincing enough.

9. They planned a gag shot for the studio to stumble across while perusing the final dailies featuring Tracy removing the fake arm and waving at the camera as the train pulled away. Sturges decided against it so as not to give the suits a stroke.

10. He says a strange thing happened on the film in regard to their lack of extras. “A town is supposed to have wanderers,” he says, and they had a group of ten or so available for just such a purpose. And yet the film has none. “Every time the assistant director would put someone in, I didn’t like it.” He didn’t like it when they were up close, and he liked it less when they were just dots in the distant background. “That’s worse. Are those the rescuers coming?!” They distracted him, “and I’m a movie maker, not a documentary maker.”

11. The interiors were all built in studio back in Los Angeles as it was shot in July and they didn’t want to swelter in the heat.

12. The studio, already put off by the use of widescreen for such a small film, was also alarmed at the structure of the town. They felt it was far too light, but he says towns are like that with gaps and lots that never got built up, and he wanted it to emphasize “one man in black against the emptiness of space in the loneliness of this tiny little town.”

13. The initial premise of the film ‐ a man arrives looking for a war hero to give him a medal ‐ is based on the reality that the government will (would?) hire a private detective to locate the person in order to award them the distinguished medal. That character was the protagonist in the original script, but “when it turned out he was just a detective doing his job it wasn’t the greatest surprise in the world. It didn’t have, to use a fancy word, any identification.” They wanted viewers to identify with the lead’s journey. It was producer Dory Schary who first came up with the idea as to who Macreedy would be.

14. He says some viewers assumed the film was a veiled criticism of the McCarthy era, but none of the filmmakers ever gave that a thought.

15. He points out the simplicity of the scene between Macreedy and Smith (Robert Ryan) being about how each knows something the other doesn’t. “If that wasn’t true it’d be just a hash of words and you’d say ‘Get on with it, get on with it!’”

16. People have asked him about the influences on this and other films of his, but only the hits. “They don’t ask you about the ones that aren’t successful.” He always says no, but “of course I did.” He says all directors have watched others work, and all of it works its way in as an influence to some degree. Writers are exempt as they’re used to sitting in their empty room all by themselves.

17. He loves the staging of the scene that sees the men of the town standing by the tracks and discussing Macreedy’s presence. The characters are distanced from their leader, Smith, as determined by their ranking within his circle of power. It’s in the script that way, but Sturges says he advised it be added after he decided it would be this way.

18. When it came time to pick a composer there were some voices that said the film should go the “real” route and not feature a score. “Well that’s silly. Those are the same people who said ‘what are you gonna do with Panavision when you have one man in the desert?’” They went with André Previn (Elmer Gantry, My Fair Lady), and Sturges couldn’t have been happier.

19. He made the film in 21 days and filmed two complete versions, one in his widescreen CinemaScope and one in standard 4:3 for the studio heads concerned about the former. They “junked” the 4:3 version and never showed it.

20. Sturges suggested the car chase and bumper grind saying the film needed a threat of violence somewhere early on. “You can only hang people on a thread with the sword of Damacles above ’em so long, and then they want you to do a little something.” The scene is inspired by a real event in his own life as a young man up near the Russian River north of San Francisco. In that case the driver was trying to help their car start, but it still felt dangerous as they raced along the river’s edge.

21. He points out there aren’t many driving scenes done via process trailer. but adds “There’s no law against process.”

22. Sturges recalls Tracy playing with the handkerchief in his suit pocket and how it would keep the folks in charge of continuity busy. “Spence would occasionally take the handkerchief out of his pocket, and he never put it back quite the right way, and that would scorch Spence.” The assistant would rush over after each shot to fix it, so Tracy finally finished his next scene, used the handkerchief, and stuffed it deep into his pocket saying effectively “we’re done.”

23. He acknowledges that sometimes you make a mediocre movie. If your career is film directing and you’re making two or three per year ‐ oh how times have changed ‐ some are bound to be just okay. He never doubted Bad Day at Black Rock.

24. “Oh god, here’s the hearse. I’d forgotten all about it.” Getting the train out there was the most difficult physical part of the production, but finding the hearse was an ordeal in itself. They finally located one with an owner happy to let them use it, but when he discovered where they wanted to take it “he balked.” They ultimately had to hire an “escort” for the car to stay by its side from beginning to end making sure it remained taken care of.

25. He says the production was free of conflict between talent with one exception “that amused me and absolutely scorched Spence.” Tracy had won three Academy Awards by this time, but Walter Brennan had won four, and before each shared scene Brennan would look at Tracy and hold up four fingers.

26. “What makes a fight a good fight is how much you care who wins or loses. People can hit each other with axes walking up and down girders fifty stories up in the air, and if you don’t care about ’em you’re gonna get bored, unless they go up in flames, and *then* you’re gonna get bored.” All due respect to Mr. Sturges, but I would watch the hell out of that fight scene.

27. The fight between Macreedy and Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) in the diner is one of those scenes where he plays it right to the edge. “If it lasted another ten feet the audience would have shouted out in disgust that Spence didn’t hit him. Then when you do that kind of fight, explode it. Let the guy that’s gonna win it just clobber the man, and do it fast because if you do it fast a great cheer of relief and joy will go up.”

28. He admits Tracy’s double during the fight looks nothing like him but says that’s not important. “You stage and cut the scene so that you’re always looking at the other fellow.” Tracy wouldn’t take part in fight scenes because he would get too carried away and had knocked teeth out before.

29. Tracy loved the film but doubted a person his size could take someone Borgnine’s size down in a fight like that. Sturges called on some Marine experts to watch the scene and evaluate how believable it was, and the professional had one issue. He said if that chop to the neck was done right it would have killed the other guy.

30. Sturges began his career as a “cutter,” aka an editor. “I swept floors, kept track of trims and outtakes, put them together in the machine, and eventually some years later I was a cutter. Bobby Wise, a well-known director and one of my oldest friends, was in the next cubicle, he started as a music cutter.” He says it begins with the staging, and if you don’t do that right you won’t have much of value to cut together later.

31. When he left MGM to go independent the one thing he took was the editor he’d grown comfortable with telling him he’d triple his salary and never look back.

32. He gets a chuckle out of seeing Tracy simulate the Molotov cocktail and explains it via a story about his time working on The Old Man and the Sea. “Never met [Ernest] Hemingway but conversed with him via letters once in a while, and sometime later I heard that he thought Bad Day at Black Rock was a terrific movie. Only one flaw in the picture which he forgave and he explained what a real Molotov cocktail consisted of. Well that was too much so I wrote him and said ‘you give the guy in the story one arm, all he’s got is a Jeep where he’s gotta disconnect the gas line, he’s got a fella who’s gonna arrive in thirty seconds with a rifle and shoot him, and you want him to make a perfect Molotov cocktail? Come on.’”

33. The script originally ended with Smith being brought back as a captive and tied to the hood of the car like the deer was during his introduction earlier, but Sturges wanted him dead and no longer visible. “I thought that was a bit of self-conscious stuff… done to make an artificial tie-up. Secondly, it’s a funny thing, [he] left the picture a vicious, frightening character. To bring him back captured dilutes that. I didn’t want to ever see him alive again.”

34. His favorite single line in any of his films is the final one here.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Films aren’t real anyhow.”

“All good actors were always good actors.”

“You are the judge when you watch a scene. Is it good or bad. If it’s bad, what’s wrong with it? If it’s good, why is it?”

“The trick of suspense is to do nothing and make people sweat.”

“Every trick that will induce emotion in the audience, you use. You use them all.”

“I don’t think audiences realize you don’t make a bad picture deliberately.”

“Nobody knows what a successful film is until it’s released.”

“The perfect camera technique is one the audience doesn’t even know is happening.”

“I have to laugh when I watch how stuff is done today. We invented this stuff.”

Final Thoughts

This really is one hell of a commentary track. Sturges fills it with enough anecdotes and information to satisfy any listener, and his observations and explanations on the craft are alone worth the price of admission. It’s a shame WB wasn’t able to include the track on their new Blu, but it’s easy enough to cue up the track online while watching the Blu-ray.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.