Movies Till Dawn: ’50s Violence

Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, Warner Film Archives) One-armed vet Spencer Tracy’s search for a Japanese-American farmer takes him to the titular California desert town, where de facto town boss Robert Ryan and his goons (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin) do their worst to thwart him. This Western-tinged suspense thriller boasts more than its share of laudatory elements, from John (“The Magnificent Seven”) Sturges’ Oscar-nominated direction, as spare and tough as the Lone Pine locations, to Millard Kaufman’s flinty, Oscar-nominated script, delivered with skill by a solid cast led by Tracy (who earned his fifth and final Oscar nod here_ and Ryan, who are well abetted by a supporting cast that, in addition to Borgnine and Marvin, includes Walter Brennan (feisty town doctor), Dean Jagger (cowed, alcoholic sheriff) and John Ericson and Anne Francis as guilt-ridden siblings. But what may linger most for viewers is the simple, unapologetic way in which the film calls out the patriotic fervor that sent thousands of people like the missing Komoko to internment camps during World War II for what it is – racially motivated fear and hatred, plain and simple. As such, its arrival on Blu-ray from the Warner Film Archive Collection couldn’t be more timely. The disc includes scholarly commentary by historian Dana Polan (ported over from the 2005 DVD release) and the original theatrical trailer.

Fixed Bayonets!” (1951, Kino Lorber) A 48-man platoon, charged with serving as a diversion for an American regiment retreating across a frozen river in Korea, finds that their assignment has become more difficult when the deaths of their battle-hardened leaders (Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea and Craig Hill) leaves them under the command of a corporal (Richard Basehart), who cannot bring himself to kill the enemy or order others to do so. The success of his indie Korean War picture “The Steel Helmet,” released that same year, prompted Fox to tap the great iconoclast Samuel Fuller to direct this drama as well; the result is typically gutsy and unsentimental, and underscores Fuller’s talent for folding complex moral and emotional themes and unvarnished violence into pulpy genre fare. Among the platoon’s many uncredited players are actors Paul Burke (“The Naked City”) and Joe Turkel (“The Shining”), writer-director Wyatt Ordung (“Robot Monster”), stunt driver Bill Hickman (“The French Connection”) and a young man with a brief future named James Dean. Many of them are identified in the disc’s commentary track, moderated by historian Michael Schlesinger, who’s joined by Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the director’s widow and daughter, respectively, who provide some amusing anecdotes about his unique on-set style. The 4K restoration is also a plus, highlighting the work of cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Killing, “The Wild Bunch”), who lends credibility to the cramped outdoor sets and painted backdrops, while also capturing the weariness and fear on the soldiers’ faces in stellar close-ups.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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