I've just watched John Sturges "Bad Day At Black Rock" (or lets be honest--John Sturges and Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire's and Spencer Tracy's "Bad Day At Black Rock"--for no finished movie is anything less then the creation of the director and star and writer, or rather no finished GOOD movie is)--anyway, I just finished watching it and am having mixed feelings about what is generally regarded as a classic. But I'll get to that in a minute.

First of all, why did I choose to watch BDABR on this particular Sunday morning? Because yesterday I found a very interesting audio commentary that director John Sturges did shortly before his 1992 death for a Laser Disc remastering of the movie. Apparently the commentary hasn't made it onto any subsequent DVD of the movie and it was rescued by a slightly cranky chap who has a wonderful blog containing edited commentaries by directors called "Filmschoolcommentaries".
(I've posted parts one of the Sturges commentary on BDABR above). Sturges has a great, raspy, cigarette-laden directors voice and, much like Anthony Mann, speaks in definitive, clear and unambiguous terms. No bullshitting around for these guys! I love how he refers to the actors as "the players" and his obvious respect and affection for "Spence" is quite moving--especially given how difficult and troublesome the actor had become at this point in his career/life.

But the film has left me a little underwhelmed for some reason. While I admire the widescreen photography (in the commentary Sturges is defensive about his use of it as it was considered a strange choice at the time for a non-epic), I also see it as an impediment at times. Often I want to get out of the wide master and see the eyes of the actors looking at each other, but the cuts come infrequently and the coverage is never as close as I'd like it to be. For a movie that's about silence, tension and people sizing each other up, the arms-distance POV feels frustrating. And Andre Previn's score does the film no favors at all--it's invasive and hysterical like an alcoholic cousin at a family gathering who you wish would stop ruining potentially nice moments. Which brings me to the very strange non-existent alternate version of BDABR--namely the Don Siegel directed, Allied Artists produced one. According to Siegel's autobiography, he read Don McGuire's original script before it was set up at Metro and was dying to do it. Siegel, at the time, was a sort of big fish at a sort of small pond and he approached Allied Artists head Steve Brody with the script. (Brody has previously told Siegel that if he found something he wanted to do he'd give him carte blanche). To Siegel's everlasting chagrin, Brody turned him down after reading the script thus causing Siegel to lose out on what certainly would have been his first truly outstanding film.

What would the Don Siegel BDABR have been like? Its easier to answer this in terms of what it would not have been like. It would not have been in widescreen. And it would not have been in color. It would have been faster paced (not necessarily a good thing) and it would have been tightly covered and edited (probably better for viewing today). It's crisp black and white photography would have lent a touch of noir to the dusty California town, possibly giving the emptiness of the environment a little more reality (the clutch of shacks that make up the town feel very set-dressed to me in all their Metro-Color perfection). I don't know what might have replaced Andre Previn's score, but possibly nothing might have. A music-free BDABR would have been quite stark and effective (Sturges discusses in the above interview how they briefly thought of going this route but decided the idea was "ridiculous"). It would have been a grittier, more "B" version which might have suited the nastiness of the town. But the big problem with the Siegel BDABR would have been the cast. For instead of Tracy, you'd have Kevin McCarthy as the stranger with one arm who comes to town. Instead of Borgnine you'd have Neville Brand. Instead of Walter Brennan you'd have Gabby Hayes. And instead of Lee Marvin, you'd have Walter (not yet Jack) Palance. Not the worst cast in the world, but not of the level that MGM--still the host to "more stars than in the heavens"--was able to commandeer. Siegel also had the opportunity to direct "The Godfather" years later but on that occasion he was the one who turned it down. In his book, he had the grace to add that it was lucky for Paramount that he did.

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