Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) – A true American classic from John Sturges

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Director John Sturges is among some of the legendary American directors I revere. The man has made some tremendously entertaining films. Most of his films are populated with tough, macho and upright men who live by a certain code. Some of these characters can be morally ambiguous too, as in Gunfight at the O.K Corral.  I’ve enjoyed pretty much every film of his but I think the strongest of them are Bad Day at the Black Rock and The Great Escape.  I have a special place in my heart for Bad DayI must have seen it around 10-15 times by now. There are plenty of things to love in the film.

The story takes place sometime after World War-II has ended. A speeding Streamliner arrives in a deserted town called Black Rock. A lone one-armed stranger gets down from it – a  man named Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). The baffled station conductor informs him that no train has stopped here in 4 years. He and everyone else in the town treats Macreedy with hostility. Macreedy wants to know about a man named Komoko. Nobody seems to have the right answer for him. He comes across Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) who walks around as if he owns the whole town with his cronies (played by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and John Ericson) following him wherever he goes. He even has the Sheriff under his control. It soon becomes apparent that they are all hiding something. Reno tells Macreedy that Komoko was moved to a relocation camp soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Macreedy senses something amiss in all this. He hires a jeep and goes looking for clues. He realizes that his suspicions are indeed true and that only a miracle can help him get out of this town alive.

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Bad Day at Black Rock is what I would call an action film in the purest sense. The story grabs you from the get-go and never leaves it’s grip until after the tense ending. It’s a classic “one-man-against-the-whole-town” story in the same vein as High Noon. It’s not a pure Western but has all the trappings of one. It is more of a suspense drama. Spencer Tracy doesn’t play Macreedy as a traditional hero. He is an ordinary man who has to rely more on his brains than his brawn.

Unlike some of the conventional heroes who doesn’t seem to fear death, Macreedy seems very much aware of the danger he is in and even doubts whether he’ll be able to stay alive to see the morning. If he is scared, he is not showing it. He is someone who we can easily identify with. I was fascinated by the amazing character dynamics that was displayed here. Spencer Tracy won a Best Actor Award at Cannes for this performance. I don’t think any other actor could’ve  played this role better. And Robert Ryan is perfectly cast as his sneaky and conniving nemesis.

The addition of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine was a smart choice as well. Their presence amps up the tension and keeps us constantly guessing as to how this is all going to end. There are some amusing confrontations between Macreedy and all these aforementioned characters. Reno and his cronies’ repeated attempts to provoke him always goes in vain. He knows when to react and when not to. At one point, Marvin’s character remarks: “He pushes too easy.” And Walter Brennan is terrific as usual.

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My favorite scene is the one where Spencer Tracy books a hotel room and after a bath, finds Lee Marvin on his bed claiming the room belongs to him. “I believe a man is nothing unless he stands up for what’s rightfully his. What do you think?” asks Marvin to which Tracy replies, “I guess so” and Marvin taunts him once more by asking, “You are all the time guessing, ain’t ya, boy? Don’t you know anything?”I also love the fight scene in the diner between Macreedy and Borgnine’s character.

There are some underlying themes that are explored here, such as racism and paranoia. The film was received well when it was released but was not much of a financial success. Sturges mentioned once that of all the films he had made, this was the one he was most proud of.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson once remarked that you can learn so much about directing from Sturges’ commentary on the Bad Day at Black Rock LaserDisc than you can from 20 years in film school. The commentary is now available on Youtube.

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