Bad Day at Black Rock – the Montages

I have to admit I went a little crazy with this, but it was like a science experiment. I wanted to see if this apparent rule (that moving or facing right always means good, and moving/facing left indicates evil) really held up. I’ve taken a screen shot of almost every scene in the film and put them in sequence in five montages. There are shots I left out if there were repeats of previous camera set-ups or if they were quick connecting shots. The montages read left to right, top to bottom. Click on the montage to enlarge. On my 15″ screen the captions are barely readable – hopefully you can make them out okay.

You’ll note that the leftward or rightward orientation of some shots is fairly subtle, and in some cases the screen shot tends to minimize the effect compared to the moving pictures. Here’s the first 27 shots of the film:
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15 of the first 16 shots are of the train. Anticipation builds, with the train consistently moving screen left to right, except in two dynamic shots where it smashes into the camera (interestingly, the first is when Spencer Tracy gets his credit, the second on the director’s credit). The first time we see a person in the town, we’re immediately cued that this train is an unusual event, and that it’s greeted with anxiety.

Interestingly, we get a few quick shots of townspeople facing left to right. This happens before the full “rule” that ‘leftwardness is good, and rightwardness is bad’ is established. After this moment, the film will be remarkably consistent, even if that sometimes means violating typical screen conventions.

I love the shot where Spencer Tracy is introduced. He’s all in black, in ‘city’ clothes, in dramatic contrast to the casual and western-dressed townspeople. He emerges from the frame-within-a-frame of the train door, and stands in wide-screen glory against the shocking red background of the train siding. He takes a long rightward look at the town, and the ‘rule’ is established. As he stands, he’s confronted for the first time, as the train pulls away. Even though no one is moving at this point, it’s a dynamic shot, and Tracy suddenly seems very alone against the washed-out desert background. He exits the scene to screen right.
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Here’s where we really start to see the rule in action. Whatever direction he walks, wherever the camera moves, somehow Tracy is always traveling and looking to screen right, and the increasingly hostile townspeople are facing the other way. And could Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine be any more bad ass? They’re the high school bullies, grown up and more menacing then ever. We also confirm that Tracy is a cripple, with a useless left arm.

In the fifth row of screen shots we see a sub-rule established: the bad guys won’t always face left if they’re in a group, at which point they tend to circle their prey, like a pack of wild dogs (or, later, they anxiously circle themselves). Here they spread out around the hotel lobby, surrounding Tracy in a loose circle.

In row 8, we see the right-left rule subverted. Lee Marvin has stolen Tracy’s position, both in his bed and in facing screen right. He’s challenging Tracy, trying to force him to abandon his quest (and remember that we still have absolutely no clue what that quest is, much less who any of these people really are). Tracy is out of his imposing black suit, vulnerable in a bathrobe and towel. But even though Tracy seems to yield, we note he actually manages to exit screen right (beginning of row 9).

In the next scene the bad guys in the lobby face left or to camera, with the exception of Walter Brennan, who may not be so bad. Tracy reemerges, back in black, facing right. Amazingly, as he leaves the lobby, he still manages to go mostly left to right even as he going away from and into the camera. This can’t be accidental. Then we get the dramatic entry of the baddest of the bad: Robert Ryan.

We already know this guy is tough if Lee Marvin and Borgnine answer to him. Now he drives up in a manly vehicle with a dead, bloody body (a deer) strapped to the hood. Tall and imposing, he’s dressed like a real man, and wears an attention-grabbing red hat that symbolically connects with the blood on the deer. The final shot of the montage sets up what will be the central conflict of the film, and the directional rule couldn’t be more clear.
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The captions in the above section tell most of the story. Ryan takes control of the anxious, testy men of the town, while Walter Brennan shows the first cracks in the town’s facade. The Right/Left rule is carefully maintained as Tracy stalks around looking for answers (even though we don’t yet know his real goal) and allies, but he finds only a drunken, frightened sheriff (Dean Jagger). Ryan finally speaks to Tracy, in the first of two scenes at the gas pumps, where he feigns friendliness. Tracy shows his strategy with Ryan — ignore him, give him nothing. The contrast between the two men could hardly be greater. Photobucket
In this montage the token female arrives, from the left (evil!). I suspect there are no other female characters in the film because so much of the tension revolves around mob violence and the meanings of masculinity. Therefore Anne Francis’ role becomes the pretty, weakminded girlfriend for Robert Ryan, and she mostly serves to enhance and confirm his power.

The tension ratchets up in a swirling sequence (rows 3-5) revealing the conflicting emotions, fears, and anger of the gang of men. As noted, the Right/Left rule gets washed away in these scenes, where the men behave like a pack of feral dogs, circling, sniffing, growling, testing. Then the film cuts to Tracy driving resolutely rightward, towards his unstated goal, towards some truth. He arrives at the remains of a farm, finds signs of a recently-dug grave and a water-filled well. The mystery deepens.

As he leaves, we see Borgnine has followed him out, and now he attacks. Conventional screen rules indicate that their travel back to town should be the reverse of that in the sequence where Tracy drove to the farm. That is, we should see a series of shots of Tracy moving right to left, for the first time. We see some such shots — we have to, or we’d be confused. But we also see a lot of shots with Tracy driving right into the camera (directionally neutral), and when he’s finally run off the road, he manages to end up facing to the right. On top of that, when he returns to town, he’s somehow driving in the ‘good’ direction, towards the right! Amazingly, none of this ends up being confusing, and the film’s internal rule is followed to an surprising degree.
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I’ve done more editing in the final two montages, but I’ve tried to be consistent and not leave out any important shots. At this point, Tracy is clearly in a life-or-death situation. First, he has the second confrontation with Robert Ryan at the gas pumps. This is a sequence worth analyzing for it’s status transactions. As much as Ryan tries to tower over the shorter, crippled, seated Tracy, Tracy resolutely refuses to rise to the bait, and ultimately ‘drives’ Ryan to his knees as Ryan desperately tries to get Tracy to look at him.

Then the ‘good guys’ (Tracy and Brennan) try to plan an escape. Their only chance is a broken down hearse! Talk about symbolism. Is it clear enough for everyone? The only way out of his god-forsaken town is in a hearse. I’ve edited out Lee Marvin coming in to spoil this plan, as well as another sequence of Tracy trying to get the corrupt telegraph guy to send a message (the ‘rule’ is fully in force there, so it was repetitive).

Next is the diner scene (rows 5 and 6). When you watch the film, watch the camera work here. The staging and blocking is amazing. There are a few shots where Tracy faces leftward, but most of the time great pains are taken to avoid that. This may not be the most realistic, believable ass-kicking in film history, but it sure works!

Everyone returns to the hotel lobby (lots of editing here — we’ve seen these set-ups before) were the telegraph guys tries to give Ryan Tracy’s message, the sheriff waffles again, and Lee Marvin is made sheriff by Ryan (beginning of row 7). When the gang leaves, Brennan and Tracy work on the ex-sheriff to join them, but he skulks off to screen left (second and third panels of row 7). The Right/Left rule is clearly evident in all this, even though I left most of these shots out of the montage.

Then Tracy and Brennan work on the hotel clerk (John Ericson). In this conversation we FINALLY learn Tracy’s back story and why he even came to this pathetic little speck in the desert in the first place (this to me is a huge problem in the film’s storytelling, but that’s a subject for another time).

I’ve edited out the section where the clerk ‘converts’ to the good side, and where they team up to knock out gun-slinging Lee Marvin. The clerk then convinces his sister, Anne Francis, to drive Tracy to the next town. Not coincidentally, that next town is to screen right. She instead leads him into a trap, where the left-facing Ryan tries to shoot them both down, but ends up as burnt toast. Then we get a set of shots that nicely mirror the opening shots, and we’re done.

Whew, that was longer than I expected! So what’s it all mean? As pointed out in the last comments section, there are some film theorists who consider western audiences predisposed to see characters moving from screen right to screen left as inherently good. I remember being taught this in a storyboarding class, though I didn’t think much about it. Is this true? I don’t know, but it’s pretty apparent that John Sturges thought so, at least in this film.

What’s interesting to me is the way this ‘Right/Left-Good/Bad’ rule worked with the more conventional necessity to maintain screen-direction continuity within and across sequences. Here’s a nice, fairly simple discussion of the standard film rules regarding screen direction. We all know this needs to be respected within a sequence, and across sequences it needs to be kept consistent when characters are traveling to somewhere, then later returning. Bad Day at Black Rock occasionally twisted the conventional rules to maintain it’s own internal rule, but never to the point of becoming confusing.

But did this ‘Right/Left’ rule help in the storytelling? I suppose we could test it by chopping up the film, flopping a few sequences (so they’re still internally consistent but don’t follow the ‘rule’), and seeing if audiences react any differently. I suspect it did help. I think there’s a subtle, cumulative effect in Bad Day, so that you don’t ever notice it but it does add to the emotional energy of the film. Frankly, I think there are a lot of conventional storytelling errors in the film, and this visual consistency may help paper over some of those problems to keep us engaged and interested.

5 Responses to “Bad Day at Black Rock – the Montages”

  1. johnny Says:

    i don’t agree with this at all. it was a choice the director made and when you tell a story in film, you have to maintain consistency. where is the guy coming from? was the director’s choice in direction of the train arriving into town intentional; that it traveled left-to-right? i don’t know. but once a director decides on the direction of travel, that direction has to be maintained or else (in film) it gets confusing for the audience. the director, in this case, Collins, chose to have the train travel through frame left-t0-right. I don’t think it would have mattered if the train was traveling right-to-left in terms of telling the story; once a choice is made in screen direction, that choice should be maintained. of course there are exceptions. it makes sense that the train was traveling “east” so when Tracy gets off the train, in order to continue with the set continuity, he should travel east. Just because Westerners read right-to-left doesn’t mean that we have to view our films this way. Flop the entire sequence/movie and the same story is told without any change in audience emotion (other than signs being backwards and the cast is heavily left-handed). Emotionally though? No difference. I’m not putting any thought into it to find examples, but I can bet there’s a 1000 examples of “good guys” traveling right-to-left.

  2. johnny Says:

    correction: Just because Westerners read “left-to-right”…me an dummy

  3. Kevin Says:

    I’m not sure what you don’t agree with. And I’m not sure who ‘Collins’ is. The film was directed by John Sturges.

    Yes, you’re correct that once the screen direction for the train was chosen, it needed to be consistent. But once Tracy got into the town, and especially in traveling out to the farm, there was no need (from a consistency and staging perspective) to continue to carefully stage everything so Tracy was always moving and oriented towards screen right.

    My point is that Sturges et al. carefully maintained both standard film-making technique (for the most part) AND the film’s own internal rule about screen direction/character polarity. I find that fascinating, regardless of whether it added to the film’s power and meaning.

    Did the screen-direction rule add to the emotional consistency and punch of the film? I can’t say, though I think it might have. Are there a thousand examples of good guys traveling right to left? Surely. Would those scenes have been stronger if those good guys had instead been staged and blocked to travel left to right? Perhaps. It really wouldn’t be that difficult an experiment to pull off, is someone chose to try.

    Regardless, I didn’t post this to prove that right-to-left = good guy, much as some might think it’s true. I posted this to study how some accomplished film makers used a subtle technique and a hidden, self-imposed rule throughout a particular film, to what I think is ultimately a strong effect.

  4. alonso Says:

    Wow Kevin, thanks for the in depth analysis. It’s interesting how they wiggled around conflicts with usual film language and their internal rule. It’s also an interesting idea you propose that this strong subtle consistency helps to somewhat smooth over other problems. It makes me wonder what it could do for a film with a stronger story foundation. It’s like a tiny pinch of saffron, just a small addition but can add a subtle color to the whole dish (saffron’s probably not the best analogy ;), it makes me wonder what other subtle film language spices lurk out there. Thanks for the analysis.

  5. bugFrog Says:

    Talk about detail. Amazing Kevin. This is what I love about animation – everything is planned to an amazing degree. As you point out here, films are often planned out like this as well, but we as viewers don’t notice it because it just works. Watching for this in all films is a great way to study which scenes work and which don’t. I know I’m going to be watching for this in all the films I watch in the future.

    I sometimes find myself watching a scene (mine and otherwise) thinking “why isn’t this working? Where is the punch?” and it turns out it is because of camera angles, edits, and blocking, instead of dialog or story. Alonso is right, there is a whole store full of spices we can discover to make a film just speak, or to make it sing and be heard.

    Thanks for the time you put in here!

    bugFrog

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch