I usually feel the need to slap my head when I wait so long to see certain films. If you hear a light slap throughout this review it’s me doing copiously joining my face with my palm. Bad Day at Black Rock is a fantastic film that I wouldn’t have expected to like so much considering it’s usually labeled a Western. While the film does have a lot of Western elements, it also has flashes of film noir, and the psychological thriller embedded in it. I’m not sure where it’ll end up in my year-end list of films, but I’m definitely hoping to see this in my stocking come Christmas time.
John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train in the little town of Black Rock, where visitors are few and far between. He’s looking for a Japanese resident named Komoko for reasons unknown. Unfortunately, the residents of Black Rock don’t like strangers, especially considering they harbor a deadly secret. When the makeshift law of the town, led by the controlling Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) want Macreedy gone, dead or alive, the one-armed stranger will have to figure out the town’s secret and make it out with his life.
Bad Day at Black Rock is considered a seminal film of the 1950s, particularly for being the first Hollywood statement about the racism toward the Japanese in WWII. It’s also considered the most popular film of the decade. I haven’t seen any films regarding the Japanese internment of the 1950s, but this film pushes the boundaries out to not only being about Japanese racism (although that is the main thrust), but holds similar themes of several other films of the 1950s. The idea of group conformity, individualism, and the condemnation of the Communism blacklist have all been seen in other films of this time period. I think what separates Bad Day at Black Rock from the rest is the tightly wound story that slowly peels away like an onion. It doesn’t matter if you figure out the town’s secret ahead of time, the complexity of the characters and the suspense of the story engages you throughout. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t completely interested in the story and the film. Director John Sturges doesn’t waste a single second of the 81 minute runtime on unnecessary exposition, or story. In fact this film shows how pacing should be; whether it was two hours or 90 it never dragged.
From the first frame everything the audience needs to know about Black Rock is established; time stands still. Ironically, Black Rock is isolated despite having a train station and locomotive that passes all the time. The inhabitants breed their own isolation, not only to cover up their secret, but to prevent the changing world from encroaching upon them. Once in the town, Macreedy discovers the shaky power structure of the town where authority is based on the whims of Reno Smith. The sheriff is appointed by Smith, and when said sheriff starts to question and exert his authority, Reno easily passes along the authority to someone else. A fantastic shot exemplifying the power structure is seen when Reno is holding the jailhouse door closed with the sheriff inside. At the same time the character of Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) is the only one who doesn’t cast a suspicious eye on Macreedy but instead becomes suspicious of the town. It’s a classic theme seen in 1950s films; that of who holds more authority, the law or science? Really, Bad Day at Black Rock doesn’t present either side as wholly right or wrong. Yes, the law is constantly shifting and dictator-like, but Doc doesn’t hold any true power either; he lives in as much fear of Reno as the others.
It’s not just a question of authority, but the idea of a growing sickness that is explored throughout the film. Doc Velie isn’t able to make a difference in the town as mentioned above, but with the arrival of Macreedy you have the introduction of an unknown organism invading, and upsetting the natural order of things. Reno goes so far as to compare Macreedy to smallpox, leaving the town “in a sweat.” Doc agrees with this sentiment, although turns it on its ear by declaring that “Macreedy’s got the prescription” to save the town from collapsing in on itself. The Hollywood blacklist, and the fear of Communism infiltrating immediately springs to mind, as well as the spread of a mob mentality that would see this people murder a person in order to keep their society intact. It almost becomes ridiculous how far this group is willing to go in order to erase any illness from Black Rock. Liz (Anne Francis) says that it would just be easier to give Macreedy what he wants as a way of getting rid of him, and while it would be, the entire world would know about Black Rock’s sins, and Black Rock itself.
The actual town of Black Rock consists of about nine people, but everything about the town’s image is tightly controlled. Macreedy, dripping with sarcasm, says that the one thing about Black Rock is that “everybody is polite.” Courtesy in this town is as illusory as authority, and individuality. I mentioned before the town’s desire to remain isolated as a means of not having the changing world encroach on their idyllic setting. Reno Smith has an amazing speech showcasing his disgust for the various definitions of the West: “To the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West — they say we’re all poor and backward, and I guess we are, we don’t even have enough water. But to us, this place is *our* West, and I wish they’d leave us alone!” The arbitrary definitions of a time gone by are brought sharply into focus as Reno just wants his idea of the West to be left alone. The world of the 1950s was filled with hostility, suspicion, and the changing mores of patriotism after a harsh war and the rise of the atomic bomb. The character of Reno is a grand example of the angered patriot whose desperate to serve his country after Pearl Harbor, but a physical issue prevents him.
I’ve seen Robert Ryan in a few things before this, but he blew me away! He’s meant to be a Joseph McCarthy type, if McCarthy was a tall, intimidating, and terrifying presence. He’s a formidable presence going up against Tracy who looks so kindly here. Concurrently, there’s an attraction and magnetism about the way Ryan plays the role. It’s easy to see why the beautiful Liz would find him so appealing. If the town of Black Rock wasn’t so corrupt it’d be easy to see Ryan playing a politician of some kind, and in the way he delegates power he is in a way. Of course Reno kills the only woman in the town making him contemptible and in the end he gets some poetic justice as his plaintive cries for mercy after being set on fire fall on deaf ears (considering how Komoko was killed).
As mentioned previously, Bad Day at Black Rock was Hollywood’s response to Japanese racism, and it is biting. Ultimately, Komoko’s demise is the result of racism, frustration, suspicion, and a wealth of other emotions that have nothing to do with him as a person. It all boils down to ethnicity, and Bad Day at Black Rock shows the harsh realities that come from zealotry and fear. Smith fights a one-man war at home, taking his frustrations out on Komoko because to him “it’s the same thing.” When Macreedy uses judo to fight one of Smith’s henchmen it calls to the audience the hope that Komoko is taking vengeance out on his murderers (and Tracy does it all one-handed!). The inhabitants are forced to confront their own inner demons as Macreedy’s influence spreads. When Smith and his gang prepare for a final confrontation with Macreedy, the one-armed stranger has it all planned out. He knows the group will attack at nice as “they’d be afraid to see each other’s faces.” The fact they can’t confront each other during the day, and do their darkest deeds at nice anonymously, says a lot about the future of Black Rock under Smith’s control. The young hotel clerk Pete (John Ericson), who Liz calls “weak,” is the one who finally reveals all about Black Rock’s past with the hope that America’s youth will be the one to restore the land, and fight prejudice. By the time the second train comes at the end, it marks a literal second chance for the town to begin anew.
I’m probably diminishing Tracy’s involvement, but this is my favorite of his dramatic work. He doesn’t back down, no matter the odds from the minute he meets antagonism. He acts like a detective, contributing to the film noir elements of the film (another one is Liz as the femme fatale). Not a lot is known about his past, but his determination to give Komoko a medal is heartfelt.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a film you must see. The acting is fantastic, I’ve hopefully proved the complexity of the story, and the score by André Prevan is one of the best I’ve heard in a while. It’s powerful and sharp with a tinkling xylophone conveying the suspicion of Macreedy and the residents. I could go on about this film as there’s so much to talk about. Go watch it, and leave any comments below!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.