Screen Direction in Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock poster

Back when I was writing up the posts on Shot Flow (here and here) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I watched Bad Day at Black Rock on Turner Classic Movies. I was in the mode of analyzing how shots hooked up, and I noticed something kind of amazing. Director John Sturges and cinematographer William Mellor (and an uncredited storyboard artist?) used screen direction to define character polarity. That is, if a character moved from screen left to right, he was good. If he was bad, the orientation was right to left (and I say ‘he’ because there’s but a single token female in the entire movie).

We know this ‘polarity’ information is frequently conveyed via musical cues, color, camera angles, and so on. A touch of ominous music or a subtly repeated musical phrase subliminally tells us who’s good and who’s bad. Or ‘cold’ colors predominate in scenes with the heavy, and ‘warm’ colors predominate scenes with the protagonist. Bruce Block lectures about how virtually any film-making element, if used consistently, can have storytelling properties like this. But I’ve never seen it done with screen direction. It just strikes me as counter intuitive, to say nothing of how difficult it is to stage virtually every scene to be consistent with such a self-imposed rule.

I broke down Bad Day at Black Rock scene by scene right after I watched it, and made some photo-montages to illustrate what I’m talking about. I’ve held off posting until the film came back on the TCM schedule, and they’re playing it tomorrow (June 17 at 6:45 pm PST, and again August 31). Take a look, it’s a pretty good movie (and if there’s interest, I might also discuss why I think it’s only good, and not great). After the TMC showing of the film I’ll post up the montages illustrating the use of screen direction.

5 Responses to “Screen Direction in Bad Day at Black Rock”

  1. Philippe Says:

    Hey, that’s cool, I red something like this in a book, they said that Hergé (the author of Tintin) made the same thing in his comics books except that there was more than one character.

  2. Alej Garcia Says:

    And the left-to-right = good, right-to-left = bad also appears in the orientation of the characters on the poster. Also along those lines, it’s probably not an accident that in the poster we’re looking up at Spencer Tracy (you can tell because his eyes are higher than the horizon line). On the other hand, it appears that we’re looking down on the guy holding the gun in front of the woman. But as you say, the use of camera angle is far more common.

  3. alonso Says:

    looking forwards to it, your shot flow posts are always interesting.

    seems an odd way to describe polarity though, seems too subtle to be picked up.

  4. Carlos Fins Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    I think I read about using the good characters on the left side and the bad guys on the right in a book called “Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know” by Jennifer Van Sijll. In the book it describes how the western world’s languages read from left to right, so having the good guy on the left gave a natural feeling of ease, while having someone on the right causes discomfort to I guess an unconscious degree. Not sure if it was that book or if it was in the Visual Story.. one of those books mentions that technique. It’s a fascinating subject, I’ll definitely try and catch that movie on TV tomorrow. Thanks for the head’s up!

  5. Dhar Says:

    Fascinating observation. I wonder if the opposite is true for languages that are oriented from right to left (Hebrew, Arabic).

    Here’s a thought; how problematic would it be for a Chinese director?

    Yikes!

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch