Knowing Your Place

Bad Day at Black Rock

(c) Joel Ormsby

Movies don’t do bullies very well; they tend to over embellish, over-dramatise, oversimplify, de-contextualise. More importantly, the one thing that matters most in the bully’s world, their relationship with their victim, tends to be written out of the telling in favour of subject-object, action-reaction scenarios that de-legitimise the views of the bully, while also substituting validity claims for moral ones. Restrictions on time, budget, script and emotional awareness don’t tend to make for believable ‘life-like’ accounts of situations that most people have experienced but would rather forget.

Bad Day at Black Rock
Bad Day at Black Rock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is one of several reasons why Bad Day at Black Rock,  the 1955 American movie directed by John Sturges, is always welcome at the court of Dirty Looks. The movie starred Spencer Tracy (above) as John J. Macreedy, a former Major in WW2 arriving in 1946 in the town of Black Rock, a town bullied into submission, silence and denial.  The suspended nature of the town is the after effect of a crime committed in the context of the war, a crime that makes Black Rock a meeting place for American paranoia and small-town bigotry.  Macreedy eventually takes on the role of avenging angel in his pursuit of the truth that lies hidden beneath the violence and intimidation of Black Rock’s hard men.

The role of avenging angel is a key source of drama in the movie, a movie that is an unusual mix of Western, noir and thriller. But this role, while captivating to the viewer, is secondary to the way in which the story of bully and bullied is played out, itself a source of suspense and drama for the audience. Numerous scenes reveal a game of emotional cat and mouse between Macreedy and those men of Black Rock unsettled by his presence. Their message to him is clear and unwavering: you don’t fit in here, you don’t belong, you’re not welcome in this town, we don’t want you around. But as brilliantly illustrated in the bar scene, Macreedy has his own set of messages for them, communicated in body and spoken language:  I know who you are, I know why I worry you, I know what you know, and I don’t want to fit in here.  Even before the arm moves kick in, Macreedy already has the upper hand.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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