Director John Sturges is noted for a 30-year career of slam-bang action films, usually starring tough (or at least manly) guys in the lead role – he worked with John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood among others – acting out macho fantasies – Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven are three of his best-known films. It’s not all he did – he’s got a couple straight dramas, an anomalous comedy, and a couple later sci-fi films to his credit – but it’s the reputation he holds today, and deservedly so since it’s his specialty.
Bad Day at Black Rock falls about ten years into his career, which at the time consisted largely of action-oriented westerns and crime films knocked out fast and cheap, and it’s the film that made enough money for MGM that it put him on the map and gave him the ability to establish an independent production company in 1959. But even so, Bad Day at Black Rock started no different from any number of B-movie cheapies he’d made before it – he shot it in three weeks from material that could have made for a dubious film (the producer almost canned the film, believing it to be “subversive”). And if the action isn’t exactly “slam-bang” the tension is methodically ratcheted up like very few of his films managed. And I doubt that anybody thinks of Black Rock’s star Spencer Tracy when the word “macho” comes up in relation to actors. But for my money, this is the finest film by Sturges that I’ve seen (he’s got over 40 to his credit), and certainly his subtlest. Allegedly the film’s writers, not sure they would be able to land Tracy in the role, rewrote is as a one-armed man with the idea that no actor can resist playing a character with a physical impairment. Tracy would go on to get an Oscar nomination for his performance here, his first since his heyday.
Bad Day at Black Rock is the story of war veteran John Macreedy (Tracy) going to the small town of Black Rock (which consists of no more than a dozen buildings) to visit an army buddy’s father, the Japanese-American Komoko, to give him important news but nobody in the small town seems especially ready to help him find Komoko. In fact, they range from coolly silent to downright hostile to see him there snooping around town, an outsider who should just mind his own business and move along. As the train rolls into town the townspeople all look up at the unusual occurrence of a stranger coming to town, with one of them even commenting aloud “first time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”
What happens from there is a master class in slowly simmering tension, as Macreedy keeps asking around about Komoko’s whereabouts without giving up his intentions while the townspeople get increasingly frustrated with his unflappable calm and nervous about him and his unexpected and unwanted visit. He shortly meets Reno Smith (played by the great Robert Ryan), who seems smarter and more level headed than most of the others in town – that is until Macreedy starts asking too many questions. Forty minutes in to the film, Smith and Macreedy have a confrontation that’s all understated feinting around each other until Smith starts to show his hand about his xenophobic anti-Japanese attitude. Macreedy then mentions that maybe the fallow land at Komoko’s place could be used for a graveyard, shoots Ryan a significant look, and shows his hand that he knows that the place may have someone buried there – perhaps not human, but perhaps human. And from there on it’s open – yet still understated and tense – warfare between Macreedy and his few allies against the rest of the town, hiding their shame, guilt, and complicity in whatever may have happened by lashing out at Macreedy, who proves perfectly able to handle himself, as in the scene where Coley Trimble (a bullishly belligerent Ernest Borgnine) tries to cold cock him in a diner and Macreedy neatly disposes of him.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a perfect example of how classic Hollywood used to work when things were right – take a major star (Tracy was a few years past his main box office draw, but still well known) surrounded by an able cast (that also includes the great Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Dean Jagger), take a solid script and add a few twists, and put a knowledgeable director at the helm to streamline things. The result – a wickedly efficient dramatic thriller.
- Patrick Brown