Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock

Directed by John Sturges
The United States of America

The last thing you would expect to think of while watching a Western would be an Eighteenth century Irish statesman. And yet, for the entirety of Bad Day at Black Rock by John Sturges, one thought dominated my mind. It was a quote by the great Edmund Burke that went, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” How relevant was that quote, how relevant was that piercing statement on morality while watching this phenomenal film. For the main theme of Bad Day at Black Rock is a common one in Westerns: one man must stand alone against insurmountable evil. We have seen it dozens of times in countless varieties in films as varied as High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Yet the evil in Bad Day at Black Rock is not the average fare for Westerns. Instead of evil being represented by bad men with guns, it is chiefly represented by good men who refuse stand up for what is right. Complacency, resignation, and denial are the true villains in this film.

Bad Day at Black Rock
starts like so many other Westerns: a lone law man comes riding into a desolate, near deserted town. But something is different here. Instead of riding in on a horse, the law man rides a Southern Pacific passenger train. Instead of a dashing and handsome champion, we get a one-armed, handicapped veteran named John J. Macreedy. Instead of a ruthless masculine bravado, he operates using a calm, almost absent-minded listlessness. And finally, instead of a rough-and-tough personification of the Wild West like John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, or James Coburn, we get soft-spoken Spencer Tracy. Yes, the man whose claim to fame was playing Catholic priests and Portuguese fishermen is the hero of this picture. But don’t be fooled. In Bad Day at Black Rock, Tracy creates one of the greatest heroes that the West has ever seen.

Immediately, Macreedy senses that something is…amiss…in the town. The people are all surprised to have a visitor. The train hasn’t stopped in the town for four years, one of the townsfolk tells him. It appears that they preferred it that way. Here is a town with a dark secret. Macreedy seems dead-set on discovering it. He bums around town like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade as he searches for answers and explanations. The comparison to film noir is not unwarranted. Indeed, Bad Day at Black Rock is nothing less than a synthesis of the Western and film noir genres. Like film noir, dread and gloom permeate the people and setting. Like all classic film noir protagonists, they have something from their past that they are running from. Macreedy too, has his own secrets which motivate him. After all, why would he come to a hell-hole like Black Rock in the first place?

Much like in film noir, Macreedy starts to make acquaintances with the local color. There’s Pete Wirth, the young hotel desk clerk who always seems to have something on the tip of his tongue burning a hole in his mouth. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) plays the incompetent authority figure. Blurred with alcohol and scared of his own citizens, he advises Macreedy to leave. Liz Wirth, Pete’s sister, is the resident dame (possible femme fatale?) and indeed appears to be the only woman in town. Ernest Borgnine plays the local neighborhood bully named Coley Trimble who at one point assaults Macreedy by trying to drive him off the road. The great character actor Walter Brennan plays Doc Velie, the town’s resident physician and undertaker. And then there’s Reno Smith, played by the indomitable Lee Marvin. Although he carries no badge, it’s obvious that he is the de facto ruler of Black Rock.

All of these characters react uneasily to Macreedy’s presence. He shouldn’t be there. He especially shouldn’t be asking so many questions. Like film noir, motivations are not immediately revealed. It is only after a sufficient amount of prodding that Macreedy reveals that he is searching for a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko. Being 1945, the townspeople are quick to say that Komoko was interned in a camp shortly after Pearl Harbor. But Macreedy isn’t so sure. After all, it wasn’t the policy of the United States government to burn down Japanese-American property after they were interned…

With all the timing and execution of an expert thriller, Macreedy lets on that he knows that the townspeople are lying. Even worse, he knows that Komoko wasn’t interned. To the townspeople’s horror, he lets on that he has guessed Komoko’s true fate: that he was lynched in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It turns out that Macreedy had a reason to sport a missing arm: he had lost it invading Italy. And while he was in Italy, his life was saved by none other than Komoko’s son. Sadly, he was killed in combat. So Macreedy had planned to return his son’s medal to Komoko. Now that he knows Komoko’s fate, Macreedy plans on having those responsible arrested and brought to justice.

But the townspeople think otherwise. As soon as they discover that Macreedy knows about their past, they no longer want him to leave. In fact, they now want nothing other than for Macreedy to join Komoko. See, Komoko’s death did something scary to the townspeople: it revealed their own cowardice. Most of the townsfolk literally stood back and did nothing while Komoko was killed. And now, the idea that they will not only be punished, but be forced to confront their own actions, proves to be too much. The answer to the townspeople is simple: kill Macreedy, act like nothing ever happened, and pray to God that everyone will forget that there was ever a man named Komoko.

One by one, individual members of the community stand up with Macreedy. Eventually, they tell him the story of Komoko’s death and reveal the name of his killer. They even try to help him get out of town. Call the police, they say. But the operator says the lines are “busy.” Take another train out, they say. But the next one isn’t scheduled until tomorrow morning. Take the spare jeep, they say. But somebody has ripped all of the wires out of the engine….

Folks, I’d love to divulge more of the plot to you. I really would. But it would be like giving away the ending to a Hitchcock or Clouzot thriller. Rest assured that once Macreedy realizes that he can’t leave the town alive, the movie morphs into a suspenseful powerhouse. Suddenly, every person is a potential killer, every plot of earth or abandoned well a potential grave. All that keeps Macreedy alive is the sun. Once it disappears beyond the horizon…well…I don’t think I need to go on.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a film of the highest caliber. A film noir dressed like a Western, it combines genres and breaks stereotypes. It plays with all the intrigue of a thriller of the finest caliber. In a time when Westerns dealt with moral absolutes, where good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats, here is a film that dares to delve into the foundations of right and wrong. Submerged in moral ambiguity, in the town of Black Rock, nobody is innocent. And they don’t like being reminded of it.



  1. I'm glad you halted the plot summary when you did. I was getting ready to slap you for revealing too much and robbing us of a forgotten classic experience.

    All kidding aside, Edmund Burke's quote is a personal favorite and the idea of exploring that theme through film highly intrigues me.

    I also love films that draw the audience in through familiar territory (Western trademarks) before venturing off into its own direction. It's fun to be thrown those kinds of curveballs.

    Sounds like I need to keep an eye out for this one too. Do you know offhand if Turner Classic Movies has ever aired this?

  2. I honestly have no idea.

    I personally got it off a torrent.

    You know, it's funny....I am never sure how much of a plot I should discuss in a review...Too much and the readers are angry at the spoilers...Too little and they won't be interested.

    I tried to find a good balance between the two.

  3. I saw this film for the first time a few months back. I delighted in what a taut, efficient bit of storytelling it is. I'm a sucker for stories about a stranger drifting into town and this does that rather particular template proud.

    It's just as well Tracy only had one arm, otherwise Lee Marvin would have been down like a bitch in minutes.

  4. Tell me about it. You saw how Tracy took Borgnine down.

    If he had both his arms, not even CHUCK NORRIS would stand in his way.

    Really, losing an arm was the closest they could get to evening the odds.

  5. Excellent review; this is an unforgettable film, one which I'm glad to have in my collection. One of Tracy's best- and what a supporting cast!

    1. It's difficult to say that a film has one of Tracy's best performances. The man did so many legendary ones that narrowing them down to his "best" seems impossible. But this film is definitely in the running!

  6. Great review. I stumbled across this movie several years ago, and was amazed that I had not heard more about it given the cast and the director. It's funny, Sturges made this astonishingly taut mashup of film noir and western, and then made the pompous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral only two years later. Just goes to show what can be done with the right script and cast.

    1. Hey now, I kinda sorta almost maybe liked GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL!

      But I agree that this film is criminally under-appreciated considering its cast and crew.

  7. I sort of wished Hitchcock had made this movie. Seriously, think about it. Hitch loved to make thrillers about a whole community against a sole individual (think Rear Window or Shadow Of A Doubt). He also loved putting characters with ordinary lives in extraordinary danger so the audience gets more scared (think The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Birds). Most important reason is that he loved putting controvesial messages in his movies, such as how violent crimes/obsession impacts people on an emotional level. (Think Psycho or Vertigo.)
    The film is a good Hitchcockian idea, but the director was ill-suited for the job as he made it more of a western with little surprises rather than a thriller made with a relevant issue. If Hitchcock had made it, it would have been more memorable and a scary thriller with a timeless message.

    1. I disagree. For all his technical brilliance, I've always found Hitchcock's films emotionally sterile. He was ill-suited for film noir, a genre which required a level of introspection that he didn't develop until later in his career.

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