Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Release Date: January 7th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Sturges Actors: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin
irected by the late great John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape”), “Bad Day at Black Rock” is a tense action, drama, and Western blend. Beautiful cinematography showcases the sweeping desert vistas in California while veteran actor Spencer Tracy demonstrates his top-notch acting talents. A multifaceted tale of revenge, redemption, and stirring courage, “Bad Day at Black Rock” was a good day for cinema.
John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by train to the small town of Black Rock, and is immediately met with antipathy. Mysterious yet straightforward, he is in search of an old acquaintance, a Japanese man named Komoko who lived nearby in Adobe Flat. The town of Black Rock holds a dark secret, however, and leader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) will stop at nothing to prevent Macreedy from discovering the whereabouts of Komoko and what happened years ago to force the town into a state of hostility and silence toward all outsiders.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the film is its cinematography. Sturges and director of photography William Mellor (“A Place in the Sun,” “Giant”) use plenty of broad shots that allow the audience to see panoramic mountain landscapes and the bright blue sky in the background. With an expert eye for scenery and framing, the camera is also almost completely devoid of close-ups. Viewers see from the hat to the boot of each character in nearly every scene, imparting a voyeuristic feel and an outsider perspective to Black Rock similar to that of Tracy’s lead character. These widescreen views make the unfriendly town even more isolated from the world around it.
The film sticks with a very Western look, including rugged cowboy ensembles blanketed in dust and sand, and arid desert environments. But it is uniquely modernized through the use of cars instead of horses, set just after World War II. In a particularly exciting moment, Macreedy is chased across a forlorn roadway by henchman Coley (Ernest Borgnine), delivering tension and explosions. It’s by no means a standard car chase, instead resembling an Old West pursuit on horseback with weighty mechanical beasts substituting for the iconic hoofed animals.
Macreedy is a uniquely powerful character. Maimed in the war, he keeps one hand in his pocket at all times, giving him a rather harmless appearance. However, he has a confident, stern gaze and, while he yields at times to avoid unnecessary conflicts, he’s seemingly unafraid of anything. Though he uses his intelligence to avoid physical fighting, in an unavoidable confrontation he’s surprisingly able to coolly defend himself – one-fisted and with skillful combat expertise (not unlike the perversely satisfying scene in “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which evil genius Lecter assaults his captors, despite previously only mentally outwitting them). Macreedy chooses most often to use his wits over brute force, but he clearly has control over both techniques – allowing for the symbolically single-handed reformation of the fearful municipality.
“Bad Day at Black Rock” boasts sequences of admirable suspense, but at other times it drags out too long. Carefully, but too slowly, it fills the audience in on the town’s dark secret, which is unfortunately somewhat obvious early on. All the anticipation built up overshadows the actual revealing of truths, though it’s frequently entertaining enough just to witness Macreedy’s courageous survival and brandishing of justice. Still, as a noir-tinged Western hybrid, the film is a classic character study, morality play, and adventurous mystery, nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director and Actor.
– Mike Massie