Spencer Tracy. Melodrama. Social problems. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Inherit The Wind. Judgment At Nuremberg. And Bad Day At Black Rock. No one portrayed morality, ethics, and decency like Spencer Tracy. And in those other films, his character was believable. The problem with Bad Day At Black Rock is that it simply is a film that has no clue what it’s about, and its hero, John J. Macreedy (Tracy)- a one-armed World War Two vet, is simply too good and powerful, almost to the point of being superhuman. The short (81 minutes) 1955 film, shot in Cinemascope color is a hybrid of the Western modernized, the film noir Westernized, the urban social problem film desertized, the melodrama bowdlerized, the exploitative B film given an A cast, and the psychodrama simplified.
The acting is not bad, but the film is paper-thin in its construction of characters. Since it is a film with a righteously indignant Spencer Tracy, the viewer knows no harm will ever come to him, so the film’s suspense and excitement are shot from the moment we see his character debarking from a sleek, modern train. Although filmed in 1954, the action is set in 1945, just a month or so after the end of World War Two. The film is notable as possibly the first mention of the Japanese-American internment camps (called within a ‘relocation center’). Tracy plays a version of the character later immortalized by Clint Eastwood in his trilogy of films about The Man With No Name. Macreedy has a sketchy past, and only near the film’s end do we find out the purpose for his trip is to give a medal won by a Japanese man’s son, whom he served with in Italy, and who saved his life, to the father. He soon finds out that the father, Komoko Smith, is dead, his house burnt down, and body buried nearby.
The small town, only a couple of dozen folks are visible, is inhabited mainly by machismo-soaked idiots, such as Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), Hector David (Lee Marvin), and Pete Wirth (John Ericson), thugs with little in the way of gray matter, who are somehow controlled by the most powerful man in town, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), who seems to have connections extending to large cities as far away as Los Angeles and Phoenix, and acts as if he is a Mojave Desert Godfather. There are dissenters, such as the town’s doctor, Doc (Walter Brennan), and the town’s drunkard sheriff, Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), but they seem to be the old guard, whose opinions and worth are next to nothing. They know of how Smith led his thugs, after a round of drinking after Pearl Harbor was bombed, to torment Komoko, which ended with the Japanese man set afire and shot by Smith. Now, the others covered it up, while Doc and Tim stayed silent. Also silent was Pete’s sister, Liz (Anne Francis), who seems to be, or have been, romantically involved with Smith. After a series of confrontations with his goons, including an almost unbelievable scene where the small, one-armed Macreedy easily disposes of Trimble, after Trimble has goaded him to a fight, the truth about Komoko Smith’s murder comes out, and young Pete joins Macreedy, Doc, and later, Tim, in getting Macreedy out of town so he can report the killing to the authorities. Naturally, there is a double-cross. Pete trusts Liz to help him help Macreedy, but she drives him straight into a trap set by Smith. Smith shoots and kills Liz, then tries to shoot Macreedy, who has ducked behind her jeep. There, unbelievably, in the dark and with one arm, he uses a liquor bottle to get gas from the jeep’s tank, fashion a Molotov cocktail with his tie, and then, in the dark, hurl it perfectly at a rock Smith is behind, so it explodes, and sets Smith on fire, in an ironic end to his life of crime. Macreedy then hauls Smith, and the dead Liz, back to town, where Doc and Tim have jailed Smith’s goons. Completing the circularity of the film, Macreedy leaves town on the same train he entered it, after giving Doc Komoko’s son’s medal, a symbol that the town can use in its renewal.
Although well acted, and pretty well directed by journeyman director John Sturges (in terms of the framing of shots, and the disdaining of closeups) and cinematographer William C. Mellor, there is a stiffness and unreality to the film (beyond its unconvincing day for night scenes), and it all starts with the creaky screenplay by Don McGuire, from a story by Howard Breslin. Too often the characters descend into caricatures. In fact, aside from a few scenes between Macreedy and Smith, the rest of the town is all caricatures. And matters are not helped in the least by a terribly telegraphic score from Andre Previn. The film is melodramatic enough without the constant handholding of the over the top music telling a viewer that ‘here comes the bad guy,’ or ‘this is the start of something bad.’
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, is solid, and part of a 6 DVD package of films called Controversial Classics. The film is shown in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio. There are only two extras given: the original theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by film scholar Dana Polan. As he did in his commentaries for Angels With Dirty Faces and The Third Man, Polan gives quite a good commentary- one not laden with factoids and stiffly read from a script, but one that sounds like one is actually listening to an erudite friend while watching the film. It is detailed, scene specific, and highly informative. Polan strikes the right balance between intellectualism and popular appeal. He takes on the assorted allegories the film employs, from the aforementioned mélange of film types to Eisenhower era conformity. Polan makes multiple good points, such as why the sexy and dolled up Anne Francis character seems out of place in this macho world, and thus ends up the lone character killed onscreen. He also points out the film’s reversal of the stereotype of evil coming from the big city to despoil the rural area, and the redemption of Pete Wirth, the younger generation (James Dean-like) symbol, along with the older, discarded men, after he swigs some hard liquor, like they do. He does make some errors, though, such as when he claims that the final shootout between Smith and Macreedy takes place in a cave, when it is clearly in some canyon, and when he claims that the film presents Smith and Macreedy as worthy adversaries, so that the viewer does not know who will ultimately prevail. This is nonsense, because a) the hero is Spencer Tracy and b) Spencer Tracy is always a force for good that never loses his filmic battles. But, these errors are minor in comparison to the good points Polan makes, such as when he notes that Komoko Smith is killed not simply out of racism, but because Smith had sold him land he thought was without water, only to find out Komoko had found a well under the land, therefore making it valuable, and Smith look like a fool.
Overall, Bad Day At Black Rock is a solid film, but one that has not dated well. It plays out more like an episode from the original The Twilight Zone television series, with its moral stamped on every frame of film. And, without the granite like presence of Tracy in the lead role, the film could have taken quite a sour turn downward, in terms of quality. That not being the case, though, it is worth a viewing. Just do not try to take it as a serious, modern drama, but an allegory of a faded time, even as that is what the film tries to do with the Old West. Sometimes recapitulation has its charms. Sometimes not. This film is the latter. Fortunately, the film’s brevity, the presence of Tracy, to keep the film’s narrative from veering off course, and that of the beautiful Anne Francis, to distract the (male) viewer from the utter silliness of her, and the lesser characters in the film, is enough to make Bad Day At Black Rock more enjoyable than it is tedious. Small praise, but better than none.