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Bad Day at Black Rock

directed by John Sturges

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Drama

So there I was, an unworldly teenager incarcerated at a prep school in the mid-50s, surrounded by a cluster of sophisticated, condescending, rich teenagers, wise in many subtle ways, as only adolescent insiders can be. I was the consummate outsider with some pride and much fear in my status. I was also without a strong male figure in my life. My father had died in 1945, when he was 44 and I was seven. Whether I knew it or not, from then on I was looking for masculine strength from any promising source. 

On a Saturday night in 1955, I found "Bad Day at Black Rock." 

In that movie, it is just two months since the war ended. And stepping off the Southern Pacific Streamliner — which is making its first stop at the fictional town of Black Rock, California in four years —- is Spencer Tracy. He has fit himself precisely into the role of John J. Macreedy, a one-armed veteran of World War II who has taken on one final errand before retreating from the world into parts unknown. 

It rapidly becomes clear that Macreedy, though burdened by the recent savagery of the war and by a profound injury, is still a man of strength and honor. And he carries these virtues with lightness and grace. He is an admirable man, and I was hooked. 

Sure, it is only a movie, but the director, John Sturges, and the actors —Tracy, Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine — make it seem real. Shot in the town of Lone Pine, California, the movie encloses the characters in a sun-fried dead end: an unforgiving desert framed by oppressively beautiful mountains. And to tighten the sense of isolation, the action of the film takes place in 24 hours.

John J. Macreedy is looking for a Japanese farmer, Komoko, alleged to be living just outside Black Rock in an even more off-the-map area called Adobe Flat. But some Black Rock denizens have ample reason for actively discouraging Macreedy’s search and others, as one character says, are "consumed by apathy," a less hostile but still effective mode of self-protection. 

In this hotbed of xenophobic suspicion, Macreedy encounters Coley Trimble (Borgnine, at his pugnacious and jowly best) and Hector David (Marvin, at his slouchy and malevolent best), who are the aggressively thuggish minions of Reno Smith (Ryan), the town despot and slick ringleader of a disgraceful coverup. The potent punch of the movie is partly due to the brisk rumble and strut generated by these characters against the resilience of Macreedy. It is something to behold. 

"Bad Day at Black Rock" provides the pleasures that are sadly missing from most movies now. One gets taut, witty, and earthy dialogue, free of obscenity, and all the more powerful for it. And the soliloquies burst forth with a kind of stylized profundity. Here is the town’s veterinarian and mortician, Doc Velie (Brennan), in full spate, describing what happens to many would-be westerners who arrive in Black Rock, driven by greed’s delusions: 

"First, I sell ’em a piece of land. Do you think they farm it? They do not. They dig for gold. They rip off the topsoil of ten winding hills,  then sprint in here all fog-heaved with excitement, lugging nuggets — big, bright, and shiny. Is it gold? It is not. Do they quit? They do not. Then they decide to farm, farm in a country so dry that you have to prime a man before he can spit. Before you can say ‘Fat Sam,’ they’re stalled, stranded, and
starving. They become weevil-brained and butt-sprung. So…I bury ’em. But why bore you with my triumphs?" 

"Deadwood," eat your affectedly raunchy heart out! 

"Bad Day at Black Rock" is a 50-year-old, 81-minute, authentic gem that shines brightly amid today’s cinematic cubic zirconia. Even André Previn’s thrilling musical score knows when to soar and when to be quiet. 

When released in 1955, the movie achieved a respectable box office success and earned three Academy Award nominations. Among them was Spencer Tracy’s nomination for Best Actor. Ironically enough, he lost to his co-star Ernest Borgnine, who won for his sensitive portrayal of a momma’s boy bachelor in "Marty," the movie he made soon after "Bad Day at Black Rock." From then on, Borgnine seldom played bad guys again. 

As for John Sturges, he would become the master of directing movies with embattled  male characters in austere and forbidding settings, including "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" in 1957 and "The Great Escape" in 1963. Nor did Sturges and his producer, Dore Schary, shy away from controversy —in "Bad Day at Black Rock," they implicitly condemned the U.S. internment camps for Japanese in World War II and the lingering anti-Asian racism. Yet "Bad Day at Black Rock" is mercifully free of big-theme preachiness. 

"Bad Day at Black Rock" has just been released on DVD, with its brooding yet bright color intact in a widescreen version that does far more justice to the cinematography of William C. Mellor. 

I am thrilled to re-embrace a soul-lifting teenage memory.

— by Edwin F. Stevens, Guest Butler

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