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Village of the damned...
on 1 February 2012
Black Rock seems less a place than a mirage shimmering in the desert, conjured from sub-conscious guilt over a four-year-old crime that still holds its inhabitants in thrall. Until a stranger alights from the Streamliner express - that doesn't usually stop here - and asks the way to Adobe Flats. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is more than a stranger. In this Western environment he's practically an alien in his dark business-suit and with a 'dead' left arm that adds a sinister touch. He's looking for Joe Kamoko, an old Japanese farmer resident in these parts. But Kamoko seems to have disappeared long since and no one wants to talk about it. Black Rock effectively closes up against Macreedy. He's refused a room at the hotel so simply picks one for himself. He's a man with a mission, as we gradually learn, and not to be discouraged. During World War II, recently ended, Kamoko's son had saved Mac's life at the cost of his own as one of the Nisei, the special unit of Japanese-Americans serving with the Allies. His action won him a posthumous medal and Mac wants to pass it on to the old man. He hires a jeep and drives to Adobe Flats where he finds a burnt-down house and an unmarked grave (wild flowers growing on it.) He's forced off the road by Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), one of a faction led by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the local Mr. Big, who begin a campaign of harassment against the stranger. No one seems to get him mad which puzzles and frustrates them. But back in town a pivotal moment comes in the diner when Coley crosses the line and Mac unleashes a secret weapon that literally floors his opponent - karate. The gloves are off.
Macreedy's triumph garners him some allies in the community - the local doc (Walter Brennan) is roused from his apathy and the dipso-sheriff (Dean Jagger), regarded as a joke, starts acting like a lawman. But it's not enough.. Mac learns that Kamoko had been murdered by Smith and his goons in a drunken outburst following news of the Pearl Harbour attack and Smith's rejection for military service. With Black Rock now sealed off against outside help Mac's new friends try to smuggle him out of town to contact the police but he's led into a trap by Reno's girlfriend (Anne Francis), the only female in the cast and there seemingly just for that reason. (Smith promptly shoots her after she's served her rather glib purpose). Cornered, Mac has to improvise a petrol-bomb against Reno's lethal ambush though its fiery climax has to be given to a stuntman. The UK censor practically gutted this scene when first shown.
Director Sturges uses the CinemaScope screen to great effect particularly when the plotters are pacing about in the centre of town figuring what to do about the stranger (Lee Marvin is one of them). One or two scenes though are left dangling in mid-air. When Mac is forced off the road down a gully we're not shown exactly how, with one arm, he gets back on track. (Too tricky I suppose). And Sturges' fondness for acrobatics-in-action slightly over-eggs the karate encounter which ends in a gymnastic flourish. Andre Previn's arresting score forward-drives on a journey into uncertainty though Millard Kaufman's smashing script carries a line (not his, I trust) you wish it didn't. "I don't think there can be many places like this in America," Mac declares after learning the truth. I know Hollywood had to watch its step in the McCarthy era, don't criticise the country and all that. But to marginalise racial conflict to just far-flung hamlets - particularly in 1945 - fools no one in the world let alone America. With the bad-guys in custody and the Streamliner stopping for a second time to whisk Mac away the doc asks if the town can have the medal as a lesson for the future. All well and good, it's symbolic, it's a movie and a very potent one. But there are Black Rocks all over, large and small. It is not, finally, a mirage.
I should perhaps confirm that the item purchased was the original Turner Entertainment edition with commentary. Robert Wagner does not appear. Bad Day at Amazon ?