Things To Do In Black Rock

Hollywood Elsewhere has long been bothered by illogical elements in classic films. One is the whopping absurdity of 19th Century settlers living in the barren wilderness of John Ford‘s Monument Valley (no grass for cattle, no rich soil, no river, no nearby forest). Another is the natives of Skull Island having built a huge wall to prevent King Kong and the dinosaurs from invading their village, and yet having also constructed a super-sized gate that could only have been built to allow a beast invasion.

To these I’m adding a third head-scratcher: what the hell are the residents of Black Rock, California — the tiny hole-in-the-wall ghost town in John SturgesBad Day at Black Rock — doing there in the first place? No soil, no industry, no oil, no trees, no gold mine, not much groundwater except for the well that the late Kimoko discovered, no lake, no tourists — nothing but rocks and heat and nothing to do except sit around, play cards and scowl.


Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin are too dumb to realize what a blessing and godsend Spencer Tracy is because at least he’s given them something to do — i.e., prevent Tracy from learning what happened to poor Komoko. Without Tracy poking around their lives would revert to the usual paralyzing nothingness.

What are Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan and the rest doing there? Are they all…what, living on government relief checks? Why is there a hotel in Black Rock? Who the hell would ever visit?

Another issue: Are you telling me that in the middle of this parched desert moonscape that Francis’s Liz, the 20something sister of John Ericson‘s Pete, isn’t married or “seeing” anyone in town? In a town this dead you know that someone would have stepped up and wooed his way in, and yet Liz could have been played by Thelma Ritter or Mildred Dunnock for all the action she’s getting.

I’m sorry but these questions were getting in the way of my enjoyment when the Warner Archive Bluray arrived three weeks ago. Excellent transfer, good color, nice detail, original 2.55:1 aspect ratio….all good.

  • Matt of Sleaford

    This same thought occurs to me all the time when I’m taking a trip on small highways away from the interstate. I’ll pass through a small town and there will be no obvious clue what the residents could do for a living. Maybe there’s a prison nearby. Who knows?

    • Grampappy Amos

      They are just all waiting for Duke Mantee to show up

      • Matt of Sleaford

        A little OT, but that reminds me of an old Warner Brothers cartoon where, for no apparent reason, Bogart as Dobbs keeps showing up asking Bugs Bunny for a handout. Each time, Bugs flips him a nickel and sneers, “hit the road.” As a kid, I never got why it was funny, but now it cracks me up every time.

  • Matt of Sleaford

    Another great recent example of an illogical classic is Raiders of the Lost Ark. As many have pointed out, had Indy not even shown up, the events of the movie would have happened in virtually the same way. The only hiccup is the one-sided replica of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, but then Indy sews up that plot point by tipping off the true location of the Well of Souls.

    • Dakkar

      Granted . . . except Marion would be dead.

      • TheRealBadHatHarry

        And the US wouldn’t have the ark.

        • Matt of Sleaford

          Maybe. The Ark would be sitting on a deserted isle in the middle of the Mediterranean.

          • TheRealBadHatHarry

            No, because it probably would never have made it to the island. It would have been flown to Germany (see below).

      • Matt of Sleaford

        Assuming the Nazis killed her after torturing her, which I guess is a fair assumption.

      • Dr. New Jersey

        But the Nazi monkey might have lived.

    • TheRealBadHatHarry

      This old chestnut is a perfect example of “too clever by half.” First off, it’s not an example of “illogic” at all.

      Second, simple causality dictates that the events of the story happen the way they do because of the players involved. If Toht had murdered Marion for the amulet and it had led them to the Well of Souls without any help from an absentee Indy, it would have been flown out on the flying wing (which would not have been destroyed) probably direct to Germany. It’s reasonable to expect a German occultist or expert with biblical knowledge would have known better than to open it and look inside, so Hitler would have had the ark.

      This theory is really silly.

      • DimitriL

        And they probably would never have actually found Marion, since there was clearly a spy on Indy’s plane on the way to Nepal.

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      • Matt of Sleaford

        Okay. So the Flying Wing takes the Ark to Berlin. But Hitler, famous for ignoring the advice of experts like his generals, and believing himself to be destined to wield ultimate power, opens the Ark himself, likely surrounded by his inner circle. The Ark destroys them all. So, by intervening, Indy inadvertently causes WWII. Better?

        • TheRealBadHatHarry

          You mean inadvertently prevents WWII.

          • Matt of Sleaford

            I think I meant inadvertently prevents the Ark from killing the Nazi high command, thus leading to WWII. But now my head hurts.

            • TheRealBadHatHarry

              Well if Hitler and the high command opened the ark, they’d be toast, right? So it would be their heads that hurt… (smiley emoticon)

  • Mr. F.

    There are only two things the citizens of Black Rock do to pass the time: play chess, and screw.

  • hupto

    Maybe they stay because they have little choice. Moving to another town requires money and the hope of a new job. Most of these guys wouldn’t land anything better than bus driver. So they’re stuck there. Doesn’t require a huge suspension of disbelief.

  • Whatever you do, don’t think too hard about any Hitchcock movie (and I’m a fan).

    • Lazarus Jonze

      Yeah, North By Northwest is a kind of magic trick. It makes no sense and yet it works anyway.

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  • SergioM

    According to John Sturges’ commentary on the old Criterion laser disc of Black Rock having no extras was a conscious decision on his part. Originally there were supposed to be extras always milling around everywhere and the town was more vibrant but he decided to remove them to further isolate Spencer Tracy’s character’s predicament and emphasize his “unwanted loser” position

    • AstralWeeks666

      Do you mean “unwanted loner”? Because Spencer Tracy was in no way a loser in that film. His character was missing an arm and he still kicked Lee Marvin’s arse.

      • SergioM

        Yes I meant loner BUT also loser as well since Tracy’s character clearly thought of himself as one and does a monologue about that until the events in Black Rock changes his mind and he realizes that he is capable of doing anything

      • Ernest Borgnine’s.

        • AstralWeeks666

          Good point, it’s been twenty years since I saw that film. Funny how the details fade away.