Bad Day at Black Rock

Aug 13, 1991

It is 1945. For the first time in four years, the Southern Pacific stops in Black Rock.  A one-armed man named John J. MacReedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train. This brooding stranger makes the few residents who inhabit the town’s tumble-down buildings and surrounding desert ranches uneasy, especially when he mysteriously brings up a name they never wanted to hear again, Komoko.

Komoko was a Japanese rancher who vanished without a trace a few years before, not long after the war started. MacReedy quickly realizes everyone in town shares a terrible secret about Komoko’s disappearance. Some are tempted to reveal the secret to relieve their guilt but others are too frightened of rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his two henchmen (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin) who terrorize them into keeping silent. “This guy’s like a carrier of smallpox,” says Smith. “Since he’s arrived this town’s had a fever, an infection and it’s spreading.” But the elderly doctor (Walter Brennan) approves of the stranger stirring things up in the sick town: “Maybe this fellah MacReedy’s got the prescription.”

A cult favorite today, this taut, efficiently made, modern-day western was hailed by critics in the fifties. Many compared it to High Noon because it featured an individual who takes on several bad guys while the townspeople do nothing.  Adapted from a story by Howard Breslin, Mildred Kaufman’s bold script about racial hatred and misguided “Americanism” was singled out for praise, as was Andre Previn’s powerful score, and the widescreen Panavision photography of William C. Mellor. Mellor’s work is most striking in shots of the town of Black Rock set against the flat desert terrain of one of film history’s most classic western locations—the Lone Pine area at the foot of Mount Whitney at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas.

Director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Escape from Fort Bravo, Ice Station Zebra) was one of the best directors of masculine action films in which the setting had thematic relevance and men confronted terrible odds and/or attempted daring escapes. His heroes were usually of the Burt Lancaster-Clint Eastwood-John Wayne-Charles Bronson type, but he worked well with the non-rugged Tracy on The People Against O’Hara, The Old Man and the Sea, and, particularly, Bad Day at Black Rock, for which Sturges received the Best Director Oscar nomination.

Spencer Tracy was named Best Actor at Cannes (sharing the honor with, ironically, Ernest Borgnine for Marty who also won the Oscar for that performance) and received his fifth Oscar nomination for his controlled, subtle portrayal of the stranger. He plays MacReedy with such politeness and timidity that initially we’re surprised that the imposing Ryan should fear him and refer to him as a “big” man. “I believe a man is as big as what makes him mad,” says Ryan. “Nobody around here seems big enough to make you mad.” Ryan turns out to be correct about the mild-mannered stranger. The exciting scene in which Borgnine tries to bully MacReedy only to be karate-chopped into submission is the film’s highlight. Here, Tracy’s character quickly brings to mind such surprisingly lethal characters as James Stewart’s Destry and Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo.

While Tracy is at the heart of the picture, it’s delightful to watch him interact with his fabulous supporting cast. Ryan plays one of his better neurotic characters, and Marvin and Borgnine (cast here because of his sadistic guard role in From Here to Eternity) gleefully play frightening villains. Walter Brennan is as feisty as ever, and Dean Jagger is wonderful as a cowardly lawman. Young Anne Francis (who was on her way to Forbidden Planet and The Blackboard Jungle) plays the one female in town, and considering the sorry choice of men (handsome John Erickson is her brother), we can forgive her for falling for Smith even as we wonder, will she double-cross the stranger to help Smith?

These characters the stranger comes into contact with create tension, conflict, romance and mystery that contribute to the action. Because some try to avoid him and others try to kill him, there will indeed be a Bad Day in Black Rock.

 

 

*A note from the director: Danny Peary’s review of Bad Day says it all, and very well too, for which all of us who made the picture are grateful. It also brings to mind many memories of the film, including one that is truly extraordinary.

Making a picture, particularly of the physical nature such as this one, can often (maybe I should say usually) be a constant struggle with intransigent and debilitating elements. Locations or light conditions that defy effective staging, weather that forces endless compromise. A script that when put into action keeps slipping out of gear—the list is almost endless.

Bad Day wanted to be made. Before the camera ever rolled or construction even started on the little town, everything fell into place, and it was all right on. Meaningful story, flawless script and cast—everything. Right down to how to get the train on to the abandoned tracks to the remote area near Lone Pine. And as a bonus we had full wide-screen photography—one of the very first. The background of stark mountains, huge Streamliner train, barren deserts, all became players in the story, integrated into the mystery and violence of its theme.

I don’t see how anyone could have blown directing this picture, but if they had, they should have shot me—not Komoko.

John Sturges