Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is what’s termed a modern western. Of course, from a strictly purist point of view, the western really ought to take place within a narrow time period and location. This film is certainly set in the correct location – the arid southwest – but the events take place not in the late nineteenth century, but immediately after the end of WWII. Still, even if the trappings belong to a later era, the basic themes of the classic western are present: a simple tale of good vs evil wherein a lone, righteous figure grapples with the hostility of both the environment and his fellow men. Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the plot, the film is a powerful one that tackles at least two major themes; one of which is very obviously presented, the other is less explicit and takes something of a back seat but it’s there all the same.
The opening is aggressive and dramatic, with a mean-looking black engine, hauling blood red carriages, hurtling through the desert to the accompaniment of Andre Previn’s ominous score. As this impressive and relentless juggernaut grinds to a halt outside the tiny, desolate town of Black Rock, it’s as clear to the viewer as it is to the awestruck locals (the train hasn’t stopped there in four years) that something important is about to happen. The figure that alights is an incongruous one, a middle-aged man with a stiff arm, clad in an austere, black business suit. He could be a businessman, a government man, a gangster – what he’s not is local. This man is John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), and the reactions provoked by his unexpected arrival progress from incredulity to suspicion and finally open hostility. Everybody he encounters is consumed with curiosity regarding his errand in their midst. However, this is not the normal sense of wonder that would occur in any small, isolated community when its members are confronted with the presence of a stranger. There’s fear in the air, fear of the man and what he might discover. As Macreedy finds himself repeatedly stonewalled when requesting even the most basic kind of assistance, he’s also on the receiving end of questions from the locals. But these questions have an edge, they’re of the cagey variety where the asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. What all this means is that fear has a companion in Black Rock – guilt. A great sin has been committed in this community and Macreedy has descended upon the residents like some instrument of judgement or retribution. It’s soon made apparent exactly what has happened, a Japanese farmer has died in mysterious circumstances, and who bears the responsibility. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) is the big man around town, and the one Macreedy must deal with. Perhaps more important than the violent climax is the verbal face-off between these two men outside the gas station. This scene highlights the two principal themes in the movie: the first is the ugly matter of racism, the second is the nature of the west itself. Of the two, I find the latter more interesting, mainly because it’s approached in a much more subtle manner. When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterised by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices – an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.
This is another of John Sturges’ tightly-paced, economical works, stripped down to the basics and direct. From the moment the train thunders into view at the beginning, until the circle is completed eighty minutes later with the same locomotive making another rare stop at Black Rock, the pace never slackens. Additionally, Sturges’s camera uses the wide lens to excellent effect, the dearth of close-ups serves to keep the characters at a distance and accentuates the isolation of both them and the setting. Despite the high proportion of outdoor shots, there’s still a claustrophobic atmosphere about the whole thing. It’s as though the frontier has shrunk and this western drama is played out within the stifling confines of a town that has ceased to look outwards and has turned its gaze in upon itself. The only time a sense of space is apparent is during the credits sequence, and when Macreedy drives out to the ruins of the Japanese property – the railroad and a murdered foreigner representing the openness that was once the mark of the west. Besides the visuals, this is also a film of words, and although it’s dialogue heavy there’s a snap and colour to the lines that make them instantly memorable. I’ve seen some criticism of Andre Previn’s score, citing its intrusiveness, but I feel that the urgent, driving quality of the music is the ideal accompaniment for the threatening uncertainty that unfolds on screen.
Spencer Tracy’s naturalistic style of acting was greatly admired at one time, but the rise of the method saw it fall out of favour and opinions are likely to remain divided to this day. Personally, I like it; there’s always the feeling that you’re watching a real person reacting in much the same way you might do yourself to the circumstances. The passage of time, and drinking, weathered his features and the bristling aggression that he displayed as a younger man gave way to middle-aged gravitas. Tracy could be seen as the face of moral America, not in a narrow, disapproving or prudish sense, rather the slightly imperfect conscience of everyman. As such, he was ideally cast as John J Macreedy – a man who’s trying to do one last decent thing before bowing out of life. There’s a certain ambiguity about what he means by that of course, I’ve seen it claimed that the character had been contemplating taking his own life until the challenge of exposing the rotten little secret of Black Rock reawakened his appetite. I’ve also come across the suggestion that Macreedy could be taken for a supernatural figure, the fact that Smith’s detective can find no evidence of his existence is the reasoning behind this. It’s an interesting idea, reinforcing the notion of his being the embodiment of a higher justice, but I’m not convinced that it’s actually the case. As Macreedy’s chief opponent, Robert Ryan represents a kind of distorted reflection – another craggy individual, but one whose motives are far from admirable. If Tracy stands for the kind of fundamentally right man we’d like to be, then Ryan is the total antithesis; a bullying, bigoted braggart who’s become twisted by his own inadequacy and a country that has rejected him on every level. Reno Smith is a man to be both pitied and despised in equal measure, and Ryan nailed that quality. Caught somewhere in the middle, like most ordinary people I suppose, are the supporting players: Walter Brennan’s Doc (I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy) and Dean Jagger’s sheriff might be jaded but still retain some ethical sense, while Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are suitably menacing as the loutish sidekicks interested only in doing their master’s bidding. The latter pair refer to themselves as cowboys but there’s no sign anywhere of any ranching taking place – Black Rock isn’t so much a one horse town as a no horse town.
The R1 DVD from Warner Brothers has Bad Day at Black Rock looking great. The anamorphic scope transfer is clean and crisp, and the colours are rich and strong. The extras are a commentary track by Dana Polan and the trailer for the movie – it’s not what you’d call a stacked edition but there’s no reason for complaint either. The film is a very strong effort from John Sturges, both entertainingly tense and thought provoking. He did some of his best work through the 50s and this is right up near the top – a definite and easy recommendation.