Conductor: Man, they look wobegon, and far away.
Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a taut thriller that plays out like a western trapped in a noir. It’s also part of an American tradition in that it is a movie about racism with an all-white cast. But in the case of the movie, it’s justified, the almost suffocating whiteness of the population is the point.
John Sturges took a story that, while not original, has gone on to become the gold standard for the formula. Adapted for the screen by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman from a short story Bad Time at Honda by Howard Breslin, it is about a stranger who comes into town with the winds of change blowing at his back. It is a simple story that covers a complex and rocky terrain of American post-war issues.
The hero of the film is Spencer Tracy’s James J. Macreedy, a one-armed war vet. Tracy’s visibly worn-out visage gives us a hero that’s already tired, and as the story unfolds we realize, burdened with anxieties of his own. Made in 1955, Tracy plays Macreedy’s disability by merely keeping his left hand in his pocket to give the illusion that his arm is missing.
There’s a rumor that Tracy wanted nothing to do with the role until a producer suggested they make Macreedy an amputee. The thinking was that no able-bodied actor could resist playing a disabled character. I mention this merely to show how little things have changed.
Macreedy’s arrival to the small town of Black Rock is met with trepidation, shock, and disbelief. The train hasn’t stopped at the town for almost four years. The townsfolk are understandably on edge, but exactly why remains a mystery.
It is not until Macreedy inquires about a small plot of land called Adobe Flat and asks for a man by the name of Komoko, that the locals begin to truly become suspicious and worried. One of the men whispers to another, “Go get Smith.” The town of Black Rock is a strange one indeed.
The town sits alone in the desert against the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rundown and populated by almost entirely men except for one lone woman Liz (Anne Francis), who runs the auto store and gas station. Black Rock looks like one of those towns they established in hopes of a real estate boom but the boom never happened and the town, instead of going bust, merely festered.
The sheriff, Tim (Dean Jager), seems morose and is rarely sober. Likewise, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) seems to hang around the edges of the frame forlorn and disappointed. But two of the men stand out, Coley (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector (Lee Marvin). Coley, played by the sweat-soaked portly Borgnine, gives off a vibe of a bully. The type of guy who gets off on being perceived as being a threat but without the ability to be one without some kind of direction. Hector, on the other hand, tall and lanky, reeks of idle violence. Granted it doesn’t hurt that they are played by Borgnine and Marvin, two actors who can play these archetypes in their sleep.
Sturges wisely stacks his cast with these types of heavyweights, making his job easier. Filmed in 88 days, Bad Day at Black Rock is a masterpiece of evocation and economic drama. They built the sets in the desert, in Lone Pine California, a favorite shooting location for westerns and other major films at the time.
The sets allow for a sort of physicality and theatricality. Sturges fills his frames with characters lounging around a room. Scenes often look like the set up for an oil painting before the actors casually move about. The oppressive desert heat keeps the character’s movements to a slow crawl.
Enter Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). What’s remarkable about Ryan’s Smith is how unremarkable he is. Lean and easy-going, his hands clutching to the lapel of his jacket as he rolls a toothpick, with his red baseball cap, he looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The red hat, coincidentally, is an example of history rhyming, as it has its own malevolent twenty-first-century connotations.
Smith, like his name, is an average guy. Yet, Black Rock resides in his easy-going fist. He’s a fascist, likable and harmless enough, but buck against him and you’ll discover a man furled by unformed rage. After discovering Macreedy is asking about Komoko and Adobe Flat, Smith and the others meet over by the railroad tracks.
Sturges and his cameraman William C. Mellor, start with wide shots, making sure all the characters are in the frame. But as the scene goes along, the shot becomes tighter and tighter, until it’s Smith and Coley. Smith slowly and calmly suggesting that Macreedy is a threat. “I know those maimed guys. Their minds get twisted. They put on hair shirts and act like martyrs. All of them are do-gooders, freaks, and troublemakers.”
Ryan delivers the line with unforced gentle ease. The danger of the Smiths of the world is that they sound so reasonable that it never really occurs to anyone that the end goal is violence until it’s too late. He’s speaking to the fears of the townsfolk, stroking their anxieties as he hints at the idea of murder as merely a mundane act meant to silence the quarrelsome interloper.
Of course, eventually, there must be a showdown. Sturges wisely subverts the high noon meeting by placing it in the middle of the film. Far from defusing the tension, it merely increases it. Tracy’s Macreedy sits in the shade in front of the gas station, realizing his own life may be in danger as he slowly begins to put the pieces together. Ryan’s Smith looks down at him as he idly fills his car with gas.
Smith even apologizes for seeming menacing. “We’re suspicious of strangers is all. Hangover from the old days. The old west.” Macreedy pushes back and soon Smith confesses that Komoko isn’t missing, rather he was taken to a nearby relocation center after Pearl Harbor. Macreedy shrugs, it is possible.
But Macreedy pulls out some flowers he found on his visit to Adobe Flat, flowers on an unmarked grave. Macreedy notes that the grave looked like it was for a dog to which Smith smiles. “Look, Mr. Macreedy, there’s a law in this county against shooting dogs. But when I see a mad dog I don’t wait for it to bite me.”
Tracy and Ryan are legends of their time and the scene shows why. The two men aren’t yelling or doing anything other than talking. Tracy just sits there in the shade eyeing Ryan as he idly walks about the scene, the two needling each other’s psyches as they telegraph to each other what they know and what they are going to do.
The script by McGuire and Kaufman is tight and filled with wonderful bits of dialogue. But more than that, the script understands, at its core, the baseless rage men like Smith feel. This isn’t economic anxiety talking, this is bigotry pure and simple. Macreedy interrogates Smith, asking him what exactly is wrong with the Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Smith can’t say, really, he just knows he’s angry at them for Pearl Harbor, but can’t say what he doesn’t like about them. Smith’s anger is personal but he can’t put into words why it’s personal.
More and more Macreedy begins to suspect that not only is Komoko dead but that he’s next. He’s scared and a little worried for his life. Sweating from both the heat and stress of the situation, he barges into the doctor’s office asking for the phone number of the state police. Doc gives him the number but also some advice. “But if I was you, and I’m sure glad I’m not, I’d look it up myself. I wouldn’t trust anybody around here. Including me.”
Exhausted, Macreedy tries to understand why the doc, the Sheriff, or anybody doesn’t stand up to Smith. Why don’t they do anything? It’s here that Sturges and the script begin to explore how apathy makes room for fascism or, at the very least, authoritarianism. Simply put, doing nothing permits those who would.
If Bad Day at Black Rock has a flaw, it is the reveal of Macreedy’s reasons for visiting and Komoko’s fate. It feels rushed and somehow anti-climatic. After all, we had all but suspected what happened to Komoko, the monologue in which the hotel owner tells us what happened feels unnecessary. Especially when in that same scene we find out that Macreedy is only here to give Komoko the Medal of Honor his son got for saving Macreedy.
But we also learn the toll the last twenty-four hours have had on Macreedy. A recent amputee, he confesses he was going to leave the country, drop out of the human race after he delivered the medal. Disabled people are often seen as saintly and while Macreedy is the hero, the script allows him to be in turns stalwart and also confused, scared, and also a tad self-pitying.
Sturges is using Black Rock as a stand-in for America writ large. You can see it in how Macreedy, although terrified and desperate is also disgusted. “I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America. But one town like it is enough.”
Bad Day at Black Rock is a film that starts by grabbing you by your shirt collar and, for most of its short run time, never lets go. Mellor’s breathtaking cinematography luxuriates in the wide-open California desert. But Sturges and Mellor take those wide-open spaces and make them almost eerie, reminding us that these characters are miles away from anything and anyone.
Then there’s Andre Previn’s score. Originally intended to be released without a musical soundtrack, it tested poorly so MGM ordered a score tacked on. Mind-Boggling considering how any discussion of Bad Day at Black Rock must mention Previn’s all-consuming score.
Previn’s soundtrack somehow manages to enhance the tension and action sequences while also acting as foreshadowing and at the same time teasing out little bits of the character’s personalities that happen to be on screen. The score isn’t as memorable in the way that, say, the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is. But it’s no less as effective in the way that it is simultaneously invisible when it needs to be while somehow also refusing to be ignored at other moments.
Even though Macreedy uncovers Komoko’s fate and destroys Smith’s hold on Black Rock, he leaves with the realization that despite his actions, the problem may be more than the town itself. Doc waits with Macreedy, two old men, battered and weary, and wonders if the town can ever recover. Macreedy shrugs, “Some towns do and some don’t, depends on the people.”
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer