Posted by Susan Doll on January 13, 2014 Movie Morlocks
In most film history books, the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen processes is attributed to the studios’ attempts to counter the rising popularity of television. Making the big screen bigger was one strategy to increase the level of spectacle in the movies, thereby luring audiences back to the theaters, along with color, stereo sound, and gimmicks like 3-D. Early films exploited widescreen by including casts of thousands, as in The Robe, or by shooting in beautiful, foreign locations, as in Three Coins in the Fountain.
Despite the spectacle of casts of thousands in period costume, historical eras recreated via huge sets, or postcard views of exotic locales, some directors had difficulties with widescreen. The academy format had been perfect for composing in depth, but widescreen was not. Also, close-ups, which are so important in drawing audiences into the emotion of a character or scene, could look clunky in widescreen. It took some directors and producers a few years to get the hang of it.
Of course, there are always exceptions. A few directors excelled at the widescreen format, mastering the art of composing for width and ignoring the trend for spectacle. On Tuesday, January 14, at 10pm, TCM will airBad Day at Black Rock, one of my favorite CinemaScope movies. Director John Sturges eschewed the trend toward larger-than-life spectacle by offering a stripped-down drama set in an unappealing, dilapidated town with a minimal cast. Sturges did not need spectacle to make his film visually dramatic; he used composition and mise-en-scene. For those reasons, I selected Bad Day at Black Rock to show in my History of Film class this semester to represent the 1950s.
Most movie-lovers have probably seen Black Rock many times, because it airs frequently on TCM, but repeat viewers will make the perfect audience tomorrow night. Having fore knowledge of the story means you are free to direct more attention to the way the compositions enhance tone and meaning.
Spencer Tracy stars as John J. Macreedy, a one-armed veteran who arrives in the remote desert town of Black Rock, which hasn’t seen a visitor for a long time. Isolated, barren, and run down, Black Rock is the kind of town you leave, not deliberately visit. He is searching for a Japanese-American farmer from the area, but the townspeople are not only unhelpful, they are downright belligerent. As Macreedy tries to track down the missing farmer, he begins to realize that the inhospitable residents are hiding something. The dry, empty landscape almost overwhelms Black Rock, accentuating the town’s isolation and its age. The people are an extension of the setting: They look like hold-overs from another era; their lives are empty and their souls barren; and their isolation has made them out of step with the realities of the contemporary world. Though Bad Day at Black Rock is over fifty years old, its depiction of how a small town can atrophy without industry, commerce, and the re-invigorating power of diversity is relevant to the small towns across the Midwest suffering from the loss of industry.