When Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a bad day, he likes to relax in a perfumed milk bath drawn by supple concubines dressed in white gowns, while the children of his fallen enemies drop rose petals about his head in a gentle rain. When that option isn't available, he drinks beer and issues subverbal grunts from the corner of the couch.
"Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over."—John J. Macreedy
Bad Day at Black Rock is packaged as part of the Warner Brothers Controversial Classics Collection, but I find its classic status clear. Perhaps if you stack it up against Lawrence of Arabia, it would suffer; it isn't as epic, doesn't aim as high. But for an intimate action film with one set and a tiny cast that clocks in at 81 minutes, it exceeds all expectations. If you like Die Hard, Falling Down, and other action movies that rely heavily on suspense and the intellect of the protaganist to survive tricky situations, Bad Day at Black Rock is a blast from the past that has gas left in the tank.
Facts of the Case
John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in an Arizona town that hasn't seen a visitor in four years. He gets the impression that the townspeople want it that way. Undeterred, Macreedy goes about his business. Before long, local despot Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his henchmen Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin) are in Macreedy's face everywhere he turns. Macreedy sets his sights on leaving town, and tries to enlist the aid of apathetic allies such as Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), and Liz Wirth (Anne Francis). They don't have a compelling reason to help him—which leaves Macreedy up the proverbial creek.
Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day have got nothing on John J. Macreedy. Sure, Macreedy is in certain mortal peril, with miles of nothing but desert between him and safety. Sure, he has a town full of people waiting for the right moment to snuff him out. But that's not the worst of it: The guy can't catch a break. The only food is chili with beans, or chili without beans—and he doesn't like chili. When he tries to lie down in his room for a nap, a six-foot-tall cowboy hops into his bed to smoke. He can't even rest on a rock in the blazing sun without someone in his face calling him names. Welcome to Black Rock.
The opening scenes establish the kind of film you'll be watching. A gleaming silver locomotive barrels through desolate scrub, oblivious to the harshness of the environment. Director John Sturges uses energetic camera movements while sweeping over the train or facing it head on; I'm not a film historian, but it seems these camera movements are particularly kinetic and tricky for 1955 technology. The score is alarmed, warning us at the top of its lungs that something dangerous is at hand. The train pulls near the town, and we have time to take in its isolation, its rude character. When Macreedy steps off the platform and stands alone in the middle of the dusty tracks, we know beyond doubt that he is marked for trouble. It is hard to put into words how this opening sequence makes you feel, but it is vital in setting the mood of the film.
The adjectives you'll hear used to descibe this film are taut, snappy, brisk; words that suggest a heightened element of suspense set at a fast pace. Bad Day at Black Rock establishes characters and situations with alacrity, and wastes no time capitalizing on each new element of suspense. This lean sense of purpose is due entirely to the firm directorial hand of John Sturges, who delivered action classics such as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. Sturges knows precisely what he wants to accomplish with Bad Day at Black Rock, and does so without fuss. The Spartan presentation adds to the sense of isolation and discomfort while keeping the suspense on a steady simmer.
At risk of painting with too broad a brush, a literal mindset will not serve viewers of this film well. If you take Bad Day at Black Rock at face value, you'll see a mediocre action/western with an ill-defined mystery at the center, with a nondescript protaganist, hokey villains, and an illogical setup (why does this town exist if there's no water, no visitors, no obvious source of income?). The film's symbolism is subtle, and I can see how people would miss the boat. To truly appreciate Bad Day at Black Rock, you have to project meaning onto the actions of the characters. When that happens, the drama takes a great leap forward.
Some of the symbolism is clear. Most of the social reform buzz generated by Bad Day at Black Rock involves anti-Japanese sentiment that Americans cast on Japanese Americans. John Macreedy is arguably a representation of Japanese America. He carries himself with a calm, implacable demeanor. He meets hostility with patience and disarming words—and there is a lot of hostility pointed his way, for no discernible reason. In perhaps the clearest embodiment of this theme (which is a spoiler), John takes down Coley with a series of vicious karate chops, then sends him flying out of the saloon.
Subtle touches like Macreedy's mastery of Asian philosophy and martial arts suggest a deep thematic struggle. The town represents traditional America, and Macreedy is the wind of change. Some of the townspeople are openly racist. Others dislike the racism but enable it with their inaction. You could argue that this is a simplistic view of racism, but it is rather hard to paint in delicate strokes when you're symbolically confronting an overwhelming wall of hypocrisy in 1950s America. There was nothing subtle about our treatment of Japanese expatriates.
The themes run deeper than racism, though. Bad Day at Black Rock incorporates messages about hospitality, personal boundaries, control of the media, corruption of law enforcement, dignity, youth, shame, and group mentality. These themes are obvious upon reflection, but they subsume themselves into the ebb and flow of the film. The message becomes complex, surprisingly so for such a direct film. Macreedy's mere presence brings out a tide of emotional upheaval, as though supressed reactions were just waiting for a sign before erupting. Watching this human conflict unfold is as interesting as the action.
Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best actor for Spencer Tracy. In a sea of talented actors, Tracy distinguishes himself. He acts tired, even despondent, for much of the film, but there's a definite turning point once Macreedy's survival instinct kicks in. His heretofore implacable resignation vanishes, and we briefly see him succumb to fear. His weakness doesn't last long, though, and Macreedy takes the offensive. Tracy handles these shifts with delicacy, keeping Macreedy an enigma throughout the film. His dialogue crackles with energy and supressed emotion. I spent most of the film waiting to hear Tracy deliver his next line, and he rarely let me down. I see echoes of this performance in Michael Douglas's D-Fens in Falling Down, and a solid argument could be made that this performance influenced many action heroes down the line.
Macreedy's antagonists are ably portrayed. Lee Marvin is at his leanest and meanest, projecting menace through sheer attitude and physical presence. Ernest Borgnine has a bit more range than Marvin (incidentially, he trumped Tracy to take the 1955 Oscar) and uses it to make Coley Trimble the coarsest, most annoying redneck you ever saw, boy. But Ryan's Reno Smith is the real threat. His menace is not obvious at all. He rules the town with an iron fist, which allows him to relax and act downright amiable. Even when discussing murder, Smith hardly shows emotion. It isn't a cold fish performance, rather the time-worn confidence of someone who has gotten away with murder and feels entirely justified in his actions. The true horror comes from extrapolating Reno Smith to America in general, which is precisely what Sturges asks us to do.
Acting certainly helps elevate Bad Day at Black Rock, but the suspense and action sell it. Unfortunately, I can't discuss it much without spoiling the film. In general, the action in this movie is thrilling while being entirely believable. There are no massive explosions or highway chases. But there are small explosions and small-scale car chases, and they singe your eyebrows just as well. The action is inherently woven into the narrative, which gives us emotional investment in what happens. I wish more action movies would take a cue from Bad Day at Black Rock.
Though it is an early Cinemascope film shot by MGM, it doesn't feel that way.[Author's note: Thanks to some eagle-eyed cineastes who wrote in, I've learned that MGM's first Cinemascope film was actually Knights of the Round Table, not Bad Day at Black Rock.] Many outdoor shots place the town or the characters low in the center of the screen, dwarfed by the horizon and distant mountains. The harsh environment is always there, pressing in from all sides. Careful framing brings home the precarious situation of everyone in Black Rock. The transfer suffers the occassional temperature shift and blob of dirt, but it also reveals fine detail and brings home the impressive camerawork. The audio mix is overpowered by the score, but words and effects come through cleanly, with only the barest hints of distortion. In short, this is another impressive job by Warner Brothers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The opening credits is the only place where the score doesn't overstay its welcome. On the whole, it is an alarmist Chicken Little, running around and screaming in terror in the middle of the streets, dancing around your ankles, threatening to trip you up.
Considering the lasting praise generated by the film, its A-level swarm of talent, and its impressive collection of firsts (Cinemascope, anti-Japanese sentiment in film), I expected more from the extras. Dana Polan provides a solid commentary with few dead spots. In comparison to his Angels With Dirty Faces track, the tone here is academic, discussing the themes and symbols in the film. His comments are worthwhile for their historical perspective, and the trailer is good for a laugh. But surely there is more material to present about this groundbreaking film? Perhaps a period demo of Cinemascope, or a firsthand exploration of the Japanese racism angle?
Some will not see beyond the facade. That's a shame, because Bad Day at Black Rock is about what's behind the facade, what powers the actions of the characters. The thrill comes in pondering these characters, mentally filling in their pasts and futures. If you connect with the film, you'll find it perfectly balanced, all the parts harmonious with themselves. In short, you'll find it a classic.
This jury, at least, is firmly decided: not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Dana Polan
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