Bad Day at Black Rock. 1955. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman; adapted by Don McGuire & based on a story from Howard Breslin.
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, & Walter Sande.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
John Sturges – a fine specimen of a director. He directed films from the mid 1940s right up into the latter half of the 1970s. I love a writer-director, but something is exciting about some of the older generations of directors, the guys that just went full force at their sole job as director and did a damn good job at that. Sturges is one of those types, whose main concern was the directorial choices necessary for making a picture.
For me, the era of his greatest work begins after this film, Bad Day at Black Rock. This is the story that captured a specific current in the American public which not many movies were ready to tackle. In 1955, with the wounds of World War II, Pearl Harbor and everything in between still fresh, a story like this one couldn’t have been easy to tell, nor would it have been easy to swallow. Also considering the plot is set in later ’45. What’s best is that it isn’t just a heavy handed toss at trying to be interesting. The acting is stellar, beyond that. The screenplay is tight, the at times minimalist dialogue edges just close to exposition before keeping itself wrapped in mystery. And finally Sturges himself adds that one perfect element as director, alongside the work of D.P. William C. Mellor with his eye for gorgeous landscapes and bringing to life the vivid portrait of a tiny town on the edge of a nowhere desert. There’s not enough time to talk about how good this movie is, and believe me, I love to ramble. I love movies from any era. I know not everybody does, that’s fine. However, you’re really doing yourself a disservice as a lover of film, if you call yourself one, by not seeing Bad Day at Black Rock. Right down to the score, this is a flawless bit of cinema that cries out to be experienced.
Right off the bat you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to Spencer Tracy. He has a charm that is immediate to me. Always, in any film. It’s the mystery of John J. Macreedy which I find intriguing, and from the moment you lay eyes on him there’s a quality that draws the viewer in. He’s so nonchalant, mysterious yet confident. His demeanour is sly, but still open. He almost feels a walking contradiction, though not in any way offensive. So then once the men in Black Rock start hovering around, causing him grief and getting into his business, it’s even more interesting to watch. This seemingly nice, normal guy – aside from having a missing arm, that doesn’t appear to give him much difficulty working around – gets thrown into the mix of a town that has more going on than it looks on the surface. Tracy’s ability to make Macreedy so calm and collected serves the film well, as it isn’t just the mystery of Black Rock but the mystery of him as a character that propels us further, wanting more. OH! When he kicks the shit out of that one guy with his single hand, it is in no way cheesy or forced or Hollywood-ish to the point of ridicule. He makes it genuine and bad ass.
The whole cast is spectacular, it isn’t solely Tracy. You’ve got Ernest Borgnine playing a sassy backwoods-type; not a huge role, but he does it justice with a proper menacing streak. Robert Ryan is wonderful – in parallel to the character of Macreedy, Ryan’s Reno Smith is calm in his own right, just that he’s calm for much different reasons with different things at stake than Macreedy. I love Ryan in general. Here, he gives a nice performance in a devious role. Then filling out the cast is Lee Marvin, always a treat no matter how big or small a role he plays; he’s welcomed addition to the rest of the players. As well as Walter Brennan and Anne Francis, each doing good things with their small parts. Overall, this is a classic cast of familiar faces that all make their characters stick in your mind.
But make no mistake, it’s Tracy who sells the film. Ten times over.
There’s a great little car chase over a desert ridge that’s lots of fun, even without all the more contemporary flash and any crashes/explosions. What I dig most is the way it’s filmed. You’d almost swear that in the more stunt-like shots Tracy and Borgnine are both actually driving. Although obviously they didn’t, especially considering Tracy’s character has his hand in his pocket the entire time (something they did well on for continuity), this is still an admirably filmed sequence. All around I love the look of the movie, the cinematography is every bit the classic Hollywood style and it is pure, simple beauty. There’s something to be said for shooting on film, as opposed to now where it becomes more expensive for directors to do so, many opting for digital. And not to knock digital, I dig certain filmmakers because they can make it look as good as film. Yet these old movies, the ones shot through the 1940s and into the 1960s, they have such a nostalgic, perfect feel. There is a vibrancy that is so clear, so pristine, it makes movies look like something right out of a memory.
Bad Day at Black Rock does something I’m a fan of, in terms of its screenplay. Mixing genres is something that, when done well, can be terribly fun. What I enjoy above all other elements is that the story is full-on western while also draped in the trappings of the film noir genre. We have that staple of the western, a lone and mysterious man riding into town, then there’s the setting itself being a small town out in the middle of the mountains, in the midst of desert. Everything screams Wild West, yet we’re set in 1945. On top of that there’s the noir-like plot of Macreedy searching for a man, one we gradually find out more about. The way the story’s structured is very much like an old hardboiled fiction novel, like a slice of Raymond Chandler crossed with John Ford. Truly a treat to watch play out. Best of all, the plot contains some touchy subjects for a film made in ’55. There’s a sensitive piece of American history involved, Pearl Harbor pulled into the story, but it’s well explored in a way that doesn’t feel like the writing stands on a morally high ground, rather one of introspection via mystery-thriller. This film touches at an open American wound that was freshly pulsing at the time. Kudos to Sturges and all involved.
This is a 5 star flick, all the way down the line. From the great performance by Tracy, to a drop of Ryan and Marvin, to every last god damn minute of the film. I can’t recommend it enough. It took me 30 years to see it, and I’ve already watched it a couple times so far this year. Might have to make it a hat trick before I turn 31 in the fall.