And now a tangentially related film...

.... "Bad Day at Black Rock," directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy. [Some spoilers may follow.] A man appears in a small town in the desert of the American West, looking for a Japanese-American farmer who mysteriously disappeared the day after Pearl Harbor. The town rallies round its most sinister elements, guilty and enraged.

I didn't find this to be a complex or magisterial film, but it succeeds very well within the narrow scope of its interests (interests that were, at the time, quite progressive and bold). Over the course of the film, your awareness of the isolation of Black Rock grows, the desert becomes a prison, and you begin to feel a profound and unsettling claustrophobia. I have never quite understood the cult of Spencer Tracy, finding him (at his best) a competent actor who provides an anchor for a script, a solidity that can sometimes become stolidity. He turns in another calm, impassive performance here, interesting mostly when put into dialogue with the rest of the film Western tradition. Here we have a ronin of sorts, a stranger-warrior who is dropped down in a near-ghost town rotten with corruption and guilt, and who reluctantly takes on the job of purification, of scourging. He is the pacifist-warrior who sometimes appears in weapons, reluctant to draw a gun or engage in brawls, but brave and even deadly nonetheless.

Perhaps the most interesting point the movie has to make, however, is about the insidious nature of the tradition of Western, and it is given voice by the villain of the piece, Smith. The desert provides a blank slate for the narrative ambitions of everyone, and everyone who ventures there becomes a tourist of sorts, looking to find the Old West, the Wild West, or the West were fortunes are made on gold, oil or land. Is there an essence beneath all these projections, the film asks? The villains make the mistake of thinking that there is: it is "our west," a land of isolation and homogeneity, of safety in sameness. But the film refuses any true endorsement of idealism: even after the purge, the possibilities for a bright future seem grim in a town where the train only stops once in a few years.

"Bad Day at Black Rock"
dir. John Sturges
[Extra points for obeying the three unities so effortlessly!]

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