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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.