Nowadays, it’s hard to think of a mystery or suspense thriller that doesn’t include people chasing each other as a lot of stuff around them blows up. But occasionally we’ve gotten a rarity from Hollywood, the intelligent thriller. One such example that continues to hold up well is John Sturges’s 1954 production, Bad Day at Black Rock.
The movie combines all the elements of a good action movie, including the appropriately heroic hero and the properly villainous villains, with the addition of a script that delves into strong social and psychological issues. The mixture proved appealing enough to influence action thrillers for decades to come, including things like Clint Eastwood’s "Man With No Name" series and Bruce Willis’s Last Man Standing.
What’s more, there’s that title to consider. How many other movies can you think of that inspired a whole new figure of speech? I mean, when things go really wrong, it’s a "bad day at Black Rock," no? But, interestingly, it was Don McGuire’s adaptation and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay that changed the title of the movie from the story it’s based on, Howard Breslin’s Bad Day at Hondo. I suspect this was because John Wayne had just made a movie the year before called Hondo, and the Black Rock" filmmakers didn’t want to confuse their audience. It’s another of those felicitous quirks of fate that turn out so well in the end. The title Bad Day at Black Rock may seem at first blush a little corny, maybe even melodramatic in a B-movie sort of way, but the more you get used to it, the better it sounds.
The same can be said about the movie itself. The more you see it, the more you realize how well it’s put together, thanks in large measure not only to the writing, the cast, the music, and the photography, but to Sturges’s direction. He’s the same man who gave us It’s a Big Country, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. You know he must have been doing something right when you count up his successes.
MGM made Bad Day at Black Rock a prestige product all the way. They got Spencer Tracy, always a classy actor, to play the lead, with a supporting cast of equal strength. The studio did it up in CinemaScope, their first venture in the recently launched widescreen format, and color. And they filmed a good deal of it on location at Lone Pine, California, a renowned spot for shooting Western action movies.
Make no mistake about it: Bad Day at Black Rock is a Western, no matter that its time setting is 1945, just after the end of World War II. It’s the classic story of a lone protagonist riding into a corrupt little desert town and cleaning it up. Only in this case, the subject matter is racism, so we’ve got the mixture of an old-time setting with a fairly new (at the time) theme.
Tracy is a mysterious stranger, a vet just out of the army, disabled in one arm while fighting in Italy. He arrives in the dusty little town of Black Rock, Arizona, by train — the only train to stop in Black Rock and let off a passenger in years. He introduces himself as John J. Macreedy.
Macreedy tells the conductor he won’t be staying in Black Rock for long, and it’s true. The movie covers a brief period of about 24 hours. In this and other respects, it’s a lot like High Noon, which came out a few years before: The compact little town, the compact time frame, the train, the clocks, and the townspeople all compare.
No sooner does Macreedy arrive than the townsfolk (although none of them seem to have any families) get curious about him, suspicious, and apprehensive. These people are anything but sociable. In fact, they pretty much tell him to leave town if he knows what’s good for him. Nobody wants him there, not even the hotel keeper, who initially refuses Macreedy a room in an empty hotel. But Macreedy isn’t the kind of guy to take "no" for an answer.
It’s clear from the outset that the whole town’s in cahoots on something, but we don’t know what. When Macreedy says that he wants to go out to a place called Adobe Flat and that he’s looking for a fellow named Komoko, a local Japanese farmer, things get really dicey. Clearly, this is a town with a dark secret it’s hiding, and as things progress, it’s clear they’re willing to kill to keep the secret.
There are only a couple of people in Black Rock who seem to feel any sympathy for Macready or any regret about the town’s past, but they’re too weak to act on their convictions. Or more accurately, it can’t even be said that their regrets are strong enough to be called convictions. Again, shades of High Noon. No one wants to get involved. Still, Macreedy is tougher and more persistent than the townspeople think, and the story quickly moves from mystery to suspense to action.
Tracy is a commanding screen presence in one of his best roles. A viewer could quibble about his age, I suppose; he appears a bit too old to have been recently fighting in the War. But it’s a small objection, given Tracy’s ability to hold one’s attention by hardly saying a word and then barely talking above a whisper. The town bullies attempt to goad him, but he’s above it. And when he is finally pushed too far, well, you can guess the results.
The town’s head bad guy is Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan. He’s a ranch owner who orders everybody around, including the sheriff. His is not an obvious or overt villain but a calm, subdued one, a villain all the more repulsive for his seeming indifference. The other baddies, Smith’s henchmen, could not be bettered. They are Coley Trimble and Hector David, played by Ernest Borgnine (who the next year would win an Oscar for portraying the mild-mannered butcher Marty) and Lee Marvin (who, a decade later, would win an Oscar for basically satirizing the character he plays in this film). Borgnine’s toughie is a loudmouth bully, much as he had played in From Here To Eternity, but Marvin’s character is creepier, more menacing, a throwback to the old Western outlaw. Meaner, ornerier brutes you couldn’t ask for.
The hotel keeper, Pete Wirth, is played by a young John Ericson in another one of the James Dean-imitations that were popular at this time), and his spunky sister, Liz Wirth, is played by Anne Francis. The drunken, do-nothing sheriff, Tim Horn, is played by Dean Jagger; and the local veterinarian and undertaker, Doc Velie, who tries to reform the sheriff, by old but ageless Walter Brennan (who five years later would play exactly the same role, trying reform the drunken, do-nothing Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.
The wide-scope format is used to good advantage throughout the movie, back in the days when it wasn’t taken for granted and wasn’t designed to be cut apart later, panned and scanned for television. So every scene is well framed, well balanced, revealing a wealth of peripheral detail. This is necessary in showing us the vastness of the desert landscape as well as the closed-in, boxed-up feeling of the interiors; it gives us a visual impression of people imprisoned by their surroundings, large and small.
OK, so Bad Day at Black Rock is a message picture as well as a suspense thriller. It’s a psychological study of guilt and cowardice as well as courage, strength, and growth. It’s a short film, but its tensions mount in ripples and then waves you can feel spreading out and engulfing everything in their path. It’s a story of conflict between the Old West and the New West; between the lawless West and the modern West; between the law of the gun and the law of reason and order. In short, it’s a terse, exciting, thoughtful little gem.