Black Beauty: Spencer Suspenser Tops ‘Controversial’ Box


This 1955 social-issue thriller remains one of its decade’s most distinctive Hollywood films, iconic, socially sophisticated, and courageous. Spencer Tracy as a one-armed angel of vengeance in a black suit steps off a train into a guilt-haunted desert burg populated by only nine people, all of them rotting from the inside out—bad day, indeed. As soul-sick post-war portraits of America go, it’s a world-beater, and director John Sturges’s fabulous Cinemascope images, often reduced to friezes of these moral cannibals against a fallow landscape out of Tanguy, tell the story by themselves. Still, Millard Kaufman’s screenplay is the first ever to acknowledge the Japanese internment camps, and arguably the most politically savvy of its day.

Warner’s packaging it (as a “Controversial Classics” collection) with six other library “issue films,” including Fritz Lang’s first American film, the redoubtable anti-lynching saga Fury (1936), which is better—more Langian—with the sound off. (Better yet, watch it with the Peter Bogdanovich commentary track, which incorporates interviews with Lang that Bogdanovich taped in 1966.) Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962) remains one of the most saber-toothed films ever made about American politics, and Mervyn LeRoy’s notorious I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), though dated and victimized by Paul Muni, is still shocking for its exposé of institutional slavery and torture. Also packed in is Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), the famous excoriation of media idolatry and political corruption that gave Andy Griffith his lone moment of terrifying satire; the Paddy Chayefsky-penned The Americanization of Emily (1964), which takes merry stabs at WW II-time propagandizing; and Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle (1955), a lurid melodrama about city schools that crystallized the Eisenhower era’s dread of teendom. Each is available individually, and all come with commentaries and trailers; I Am a Fugitive is also supped by a 1933 comedy short, 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, featuring the Pickens Sisters, and Jungle is garnished by the 1957 Droopy cartoon Blackboard Jumble.