In Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a mysterious man arrives at a small town ‘in the middle of nowhere’ — stepping off a train and inquiring about a Mr Komoko — his presence makes everyone in the town uncomfortable. The Last Picture Show (1971) tells the story of a group of teenagers, coming of age in a ‘dead end town’ that’s been sidestepped by mid-20th Century America.
These stories explore the flip-side of the American dream, the antithesis of the jingoistic ticker tape parade — not exactly a diabolical or dystopian world, so much as one where things have gone off the rails, where working class underachievers blunder into lives of low expectation, desperately seeking meaning in whatever way they can. In Bad Day At Black Rock the mysterious stranger breaks through the poisoned status quo by sheer persistence, and in the process he comes into violent conflict with the town bully. While in The Last Picture Show the distraction of sexual adventures helps to cut through the empty claustrophobia of small town life.
These stories take place in an iconic Americana filled world: Coca-Cola vending machines, working class cafes, barbershops, and in Bad Day at Black Rock a one street town with a hotel straight out of a Hollywood Western; the town’s ‘baddie’ even wears a Stetson. In The Last Picture Show the Stetsons have been replaced by hard hats for the oil workers, no longer working on the land but drilling into it for oil. While the legendary and heroic cowboy has been subverted in Bad Day At Black Rock, a perpetrator of racism and a ruthless murder, in The Last Picture Show the working class ‘hero’ is struggling to survive in a new world, hoping he can get a manual job in the oil industry to pay the bills.
But these are small towns with small town thinking, and the stifling social conventions of conservative 1950s America. In these small towns ‘everyone knows everyone’, and everyone else is an outsider. It’s an inward-looking world. Teenagers, without the opportunity of a place at university, are doomed to a mundane and inconsequential life. These are the backwaters, culturally dead, ossified by the status quo. The youth, with their dreams and aspirations, will surely have their hopes dashed and endure a frustrating future. Even relative success stories in The Last Picture Show are tarnished by unhappy marriages, futile resentments, and destructive rivalries — and in one case is literally unable to perform. This is far from the American dream, more like an American failure. At best, characters are bundles of desire, subjects of their uncontrolled hormones, and at worst — in Bad Day At Black Rock — poisoned by boredom, lack of self-worth, the resentment of being shown up by a hard worker, and racism: a drunken evening turns into the harassment of an innocent old man and his eventual murder.
The racist murder of the old Japanese man in Bad Day At Black Rock by the town’s ‘good old boys’, means that the stranger must give the medal Mr Komoko’s son earned saving the stranger’s life (during the World War Two Italy campaign), to the town — but only after he had bought the perpetrators of the murder to justice. His heroic action frees the town from the tyranny of living a dark lie: the knowledge they all share of the murder, and the fear of exposing the murderer. The hero, fights for what is true, honourable and right — and having slain the monster, hope can be restored. But he could almost have turned up at the town in The Last Picture Show instead of Black Rock, because they share the same dysfunctional unwillingness to acknowledge their darker side.
While the stranger has returned from the Second World War, a main character in The Last Picture Show leaves to go to Korea. One can only wonder what that experience will do to him — if he survives. The stranger who appears in Bad Day at Black Rock admits that missing one arm — lost in combat — left him depressed, but now he has a reason to live.
Both these small towns are dying and the murder of Mr Komoko in Bad Day At Black Rock symbolises the death of its soul, and in The Last Picture Show the death of the owner of the picture house — literally means the death of the American ‘dream factory’ — relegating the town folk to isolation and a future that lacks opportunity. The death of the young innocent close to the end of The Last Picture Show — run over by a truck — emphasises the tragic nature of the story: it feels like a sad and lonely place full of loss and failure, whereas Bad Day At Black Rock offers a reason to celebrate, because there is still a hero in town to restore hope, even if he is only passing through.