John Sturges’ BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

I saw John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock for the first time many years ago. At that time it affected me not at all, which just goes to show that sometimes we have to grow up into movies. I watched the movie again yesterday and holy smokes…this is a memorable dark tale of epic secrets with an extraordinary cast guided by patient master, John Sturges.

John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives at Black Rock on a Southern Pacific train, a stranger whose mere arrival is a happening as we see in the beautiful opening sequence of Sturges’ picture. “I’m only gonna be here 24 hours,” Macreedy tells the conductor, “In a place like this that could be a lifetime,” the man replies. Truer words…

Macreedy sticks out like a sore thumb in Black Rock. Wearing a worn, dark summer suit, John Macreedy has one arm, probably a consequence of the War, and his arrival at the desert town has consequences. Macreedy is there to thank a man named Komoko whose son had saved Macreedy’s life in WWII. In the midst of stifling heat, Macreedy runs into the cold, arrogant hostility of the townsfolk who clearly have something to hide. Hotel desk clerk Pete Wirth (John Ericson) insists there are no vacancies despite the desolation surrounding the hotel. It takes John Macreedy no time at all to realize he is not welcome. There are deep dark secrets at Black Rock and the townsfolk do not want them disturbed.

Smith and his gang planning to do away with the stranger

The leader of the group of locals we see is the menacing Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). Together with his henchmen, Smith is determined to ensure Macreedy does not find out what has happened to Komoko who has disappeared.

After noticing something is very wrong in this town, Macreedy goes to see the local sheriff, Tim Horn, who turns out to be a worthless alcoholic who offers no help. Dean Jagger does a fine job as the sheriff.

As our story unfolds Macreedy’s desolation compounds as his life is in increasing peril. Reno Smith and the rest of the inhabitants of Black Rock are determined to get rid of Macreedy with their secrets intact. Smith’s gang includes quintessential bad guy Hector David, played to perfection by Lee Marvin whose every word is a threat. Ernest Borgnine is believable as bully Coley Trimble, the one who physically lashes out against Macreedy at Smith’s request. One of the most satisfying scenes in the picture shows Macreedy besting Trimble in a bar fight, a one-armed veteran against a large bully who ends up on his back thanks to Macreedy’s superior karate skills.

Trimble (Borgnine) harrassess Macreedy (Tracy) until the former in bested in a fight

The hotel clerk’s sister, the manager of the gas station and garage, and the only woman in all of Black Rock is Liz Wirth (Anne Francis). Liz has a history with Reno Smith and is all-in against any stranger who happens upon the town.

Finally, Walter Brennan plays Doc Velie with usual perfection. For some reason this viewer finds if surprising to see Brannan as a good guy in the crime-laden Black Rock. Doc Velie is a doctor through and through. It is also exciting to see Brennan and Robert Ryan play against Spencer Tracy. Their differing acting styles serves the story quite well.

This fan was particularly giddy during the scene where we see Reno Smith at the town’s only gas station where a dejected Macreedy sits. Macreedy has nowhere to go; he is trying to figure out a way to get out of that town. The two men who are suspicious of each other have a loaded exchange during which we learn the extent of Reno Smith’s hatred of Komoko, a Japanese American whose disappearance Smith is responsible for. Macreedy is sure of that even though he has yet to get details from anyone in the town. Eventually we learn that Komoko had leased farmland from Smith who thought he had ensured Komoko’s failure by leasing land that had no water. However, Komoko dug a well and found water making the land fertile, which enraged Smith. When Smith was rejected for military service, he and his gang took it out on Komoko, blaming the Japanese-American for the attack on Pearl Harbor. An ensuing confrontation ended with Smith shooting Komoko – and the town’s secret is revealed.

That scene between Tracy and Ryan is most memorable for the two men’s energy. Tracy’s character is desperate at this point, but one would never know it by his deeply calm if purposeful demeanor. Ryan, who usually lets his goons do the dirty work here, simmers with anger just beneath the surface. These are two masters of their acting domains, each able to command a scene. We cannot take our eyes off of either.

A tense meeting between Macreedy and Smith

There is a lot to admire about Bad Day at Black Rock, which is based on a story by Howard Braslin. Every member of its impressive cast delivers and all were in awe of Spencer Tracy who is outstanding in all his naturalness. Bad Day at Black Rock clearly demonstrates Tracy’s talent and why he was so admired as an actor. It is the little things he does in numerous movies during his 37-year career that bring his characters to life with seamless precision. As he would proudly have said, you never catch him acting.

For his efforts in Bad Day at Black Rock, Tracy received one of the movie’s three Academy Award nominations with Sturges and Millard Kaufman earning nods for directing and Best Screenplay respectively. This was Sturges’ only Best Director nomination. It is a shame that William C. Mellor, who had already won an Oscar for A Place in the Sun, was not recognized for Bad Day at Black Rock, which is shot beautifully in Cinemascope. Mellor’s photography goes far in emphasizing the lonely stranger up against seemingly insurmountable odds in the desert town. John Sturges’ decision not to have any bystanders, onlookers or extras was brilliant in that regard as well. The cast is minimal, concentrated solely on those who play a hand in furthering the story, which works. As the tension and danger grows around John Macreedy, the fact that he is literally alone in the desert town makes the viewer quite nervous for him. This is reminiscent of what Gary Cooper’s character goes through in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952).

Alone since his arrival at Black Rock, Macreedy has to beat the odds to get out alive

When I published commentary on John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), I focused on the patience required to enjoy such a film. Bad Day at Black Rock is an even better example of what we do not find in popular movies today. Sturges tells this story with epic forbearance and methodical pacing managing a suspenseful tale of secrets timely revealed. It is perhaps what I most admire about this and other movies from the classics era. That is, the focus on story and character development leading to one, final resolution, which is a satisfying one in Bad Day at Black Rock.

7 thoughts

  1. I started to pass up this review. I’m glad I didn’t. I was riveted by your description and assessment of this movie. Now I’m going to look it up and watch it.

  2. I’ve seen this great movie several times. Your excellent review makes me think I need to get it out again! Wish I could see it on the big screen, the location shooting is so impressive.

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