Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back! He proves this in John Sturges terrifically well paced and tense film, “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Sturges paints a picture of a town that is barren, both physically and psychology. It’s a town with a dark secret cancer called hatred and it is slowly eating away at everyone in it.  Into this dust bowl comes John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one armed stranger dressed in a black suit and tie which only accentuates his difference even more from the rest of the town. Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon,” or Alan Ladd in “Shane,”  Tracy’s John Macreedy is one lone man who has to face evil alone. The film takes place shortly after the end of World War II when, for some, the Japanese were still seen as the enemy. Racial hatred simmers underneath the surface of the entire town. Like most racists it is their own fear and insecurities that drive them to action.

Black Rock is a small dusty whistle stop of a town where the railroad (the Streamline) always passes through, never stopping to pick up or drop off anyone. This time, the first in four years, it does stop and the folks in town are suspicious as to who this stranger is and what he wants. Small towns can be curious little places where local folks remain distrustful of outsiders and the outside world. That’s the way it is in Black Rock, it’s an inhospitable desolate place, where it can be cold in many ways other than the weather.

The town folk, led by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), are made even more uncomfortable when they find out Macreedy is looking for a Japanese farmer by the name of Kamoko. His son saved his life in the war and Macreedy has a medal, posthumously awarded to his son that he wants to give him. But Kamoko is nowhere to be found. His home has been burned down and a suspicious burial site is nearby.

 Reno doesn’t talk much but his actions, expressed with the assistance of two local thugs played superbly by Ernest Borgnine (Coley) and Lee Marvin (Hector), speaks loud enough.  Both men are physically intimidating, constantly in Macreedy’s face bullying him into a confrontation which to Coley’s eventual bloody surprise, and the rest of the town’s shock, the older and handicapped man handles well with a couple of well placed judo chops. When Macreedy’s suspicions give way to what happened to the Japanese farmer, his own life is suddenly in danger. He decides to get out of town only Reno and his stooges have cut off all possible ways to escape.

Doc Velle (Walter Brennan) the town’s local mortician/veterinarian is the one character whose moral compass still points in the right direction. He is the only one willing, and with the guts, to stand up to Reno and tries to help Macreedy get out of the town. A young Ann Francis, the only female character in the film, proves herself to be no better than the low-life men harboring the town’s dark past. Also in the cast is Dean Jagger as the town’s anemic sheriff, it’s a title in name only; Reno controls everything.

The screenplay was written by Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire based on a story called “Bad Day at Hondo” (1), (2) by Howard Breslin and photographed in Cinemascope by William C. Mellor. Sturges use of the then new cinemascope process adds to the sparse and stark emptiness of the landscape, you can almost taste the dirt and sand. (3)

Most impressive is how Sturges and the screenwriters build tension by holding back not just on the town people but on the audience as well, the reason Macreedy came to town. A good portion of the film goes by before we the viewer, as well as the town knows why. We are left to speculate just who this guy is and why he’s there; it’s an inspired, minimalist piece of work. 

Footnotes:

(1) The title was changed to “Bad Day at Black Rock” because the filmmakers did not want to confuse audiences with the John Wayne western “Hondo” released a couple of years earlier. Screenwriter Millard Kaufman one day stopped for gas at a station in Black Rock, Arizona and a new title was born.   

 (2) Five years later, MGM made a thinly disguised remake of the film called “Platinum High School” starring Mickey Rooney, Dan Duryea and Terry Moore in the roles originally portrayed by Tracy, Ryan and Francis. The film was a low budget mess from schlock king Albert Zugsmith. The location was changed from a small desert town to an exclusive private school located on a private island. Rooney is there to look into the suspicious death of his son who was a student.

(3) Exterior scenes were shot at Lone Pine, a popular location site over the years for filmmakers, on the edge of Death Valley in central California. The train tracks in the film have long ago been removed. 

 

 

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14 comments on “Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

  1. Jon says:

    John this is a wonderful piece and I love that you chose to highlight this film. My uncle introduced this to me several years ago and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Talk about a brilliant cast! Tracy, Borgnine, Ryan, Marvin, Brennan and Francis! What a great ensemble. Brilliant stuff from everyone. I always wished that Anne Francis was in more good films like this. I kind of have a thing for her. Of course there is a certain fight that takes place in the film that is so shocking. One of the films many great moments. Of course the cinemascope is awesome too. I’ve debated over the years whether it fits more with the western motif or film noir. What’s your take?

    • John Greco says:

      Jon, thanks! – It does have a fantastic cast. I particularly liked Lee Marvin in this role. At this point he always played a real low life and did it so convincingly. I don’t see this as a film noir, doesn’t have the lighting, the femme fatale or the seediness. I have seen it listed as sort of a modern day western, and of course it does have those overtones with a stranger ‘riding’ into town, but for me it’s more a suspense or a thriller film. The film of course also deals with racial hatred.

      BTW – I just finished reading your review of KAPO and tried to leave a comment but I am having trouble trying to submit it. I’ll try again later.

  2. DorianTB says:

    John, I always enjoy your posts, but I especially liked your witty opening sentence here: “Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back!” BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a taut, tense thriller that also deftly confronts bigotry, hatred, and the never-ending war between standing up for what’s right and just meekly submitting to the status quo and not making waves. You put that across perfectly in your review. It’s definitely one of my favorite Spencer Tracy performances. According to TCM’s Essentials, Tracy pretty much had to be tricked into making the film, but that’s a story in itself.

    Fun Fact: Co-stars John Ericson and Anne Francis, playing brother and sister in …BLACK ROCK, later teamed up on TV as partners-in-crime-stopping on the tongue-in-cheek 1960s detective series HONEY WEST. They were as witty and charming on the TV series (now airing on Me-TV, albeit at 2 a.m.; set your DVRs! :-)) as they were intense and cynical in the movie. How’s that for range? :-)

    • John Greco says:

      Dorian – thanks again! Tracy is great in this film. I remember either hearing or reading that he thought he was too old for the role and I do remember the TCM essentials comments on him being tricked into accepting the role.

      It completely slipped my feeble mind about Francis and Ericson doing HONEY WEST. I use to watch that show as a kid, think it was on Friday nights. They were detectives but it was sort of a take off on the James Bond craze. I don’t think I get Me-TV but I will have to check. Thanks!!!!

  3. The Lady Eve says:

    Excellent piece on a film on my new-favorites list. “Bad Day at Black Rock” really delivers a tension-packed couple of hours and some stellar performances. I was happy to see that it’s on TCM’s schedule on October 11, along with several other fine films of Robert Ryan. Interestingly, considering your connection to the recent Nicholas Ray bio, TCM is also spotlighting several Ray films that day, too, some starring Ryan.

    I appreciate, too, John, that so many of your posts feature films with powerful moral themes.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve – This is one of those films I can watch over and over. A great cast and filled with suspense. TCM is celebrating a belated birthday showing Nicholas Ray film all month long including some rare works. Thanks again so much!

  4. Colin says:

    Nice piece on an excellent and memorable film. It’s one of Sturges’ finest and features excellent work by both Tracy and Ryan.

    I wrote a bit about this one myself back in the spring and I think it’s a wonderfully layered film that offers up a fascinating critique of both the overt rascism of the inhabitants of Black Rock and, in more veiled terms, the indifference of a wider society that allows such sentiments to flourish simply by brushing the hick towns of the west under the carpet.

    • John Greco says:

      Colin, I appreciate you stopping by. Yep, it is a great film, no argument from me. I will stop by and visit your own take on this. Thanks again!

  5. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a great opening, a perfect illustration of “catchy.” I also liked your discussion of the small-town mentality. I know you didn’t grow up in such a place, but I did, and I think you nailed the downside of such places. Besides Tracy, everyone in the cast gives a standout performance. Has there ever been a more menacing heavy than Robert Ryan in his sinister mode, or a more menacing pair of henchmen than the pre-“Marty” Borgnine and the pre-“Cat Ballou” Marvin? And Walter Brennan is my absolute favorite classic character actor, and this (along with his Judge Roy Bean in “The Westerner”) is one of his most memorable and unusual performances, a far cry from his wonderful but familiar “Real McCoys” persona. I’m also glad you gave cinematographer Mellor his due for the great use of the CinemaScope format to capture the bleak, open spaces of the setting. Good comparison to “High Noon” too, with this film’s updated Western setting and good vs. evil, good townsfolk intimidated by villains theme.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D. thanks, appreciate it. Robert Ryan is an actor I just come to appreciate more and more each time I see him. He is like Lee Marvin, another actor I never get tired of watching. Brennan is also a standout and I agree with your comment on his performance in THE WESTERNER, he was superb. As I mentioned to Lady Eve, this is one of those films i can watch repeatedly.

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John–

    A top-rank review on a film that deserves such careful attention and unbridled enthusiasm. I’ve been a big fan since I first saw it many years ago, and have enjoyed all the repeat viewings since. Yes, it is a fearful display of small town racial tensions and mentality, and Robert Ryan (who was recently featured in a Film Forum Festival I took full advantage of) is very much in his element. Tracy gives one of his most rightly popular performances, and Sturges culls every nuance and frightful turn from this excellent screenplay. Terrific essay with those fascinating footnotes at the end!

    • John Greco says:

      Sam, I thought you would be on board with this film It’s a great piece and thoroughly intriguing. Thanks my friend!

  7. [...] John Greco visits “Bad Day at Black Rock” and playfully notes that “Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back!” on Twenty Four Frames: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/bad-day-at-black-rock-1955-john-sturges/ [...]

  8. […] Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com) […]

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