Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Directed by John Sturges
Written by Millard Kaufman

Westerns are traditionally set in the time period between the Civil War and turn of the century, with frontier stories of settling the Old or Wild West. But sometimes there is such a thing as a modern western, where the story takes place in the present day but features some desolate western landscapes, or more commonly known western tropes. Modern westerns are extra interesting because the dynamic of setting them in present day allows the filmmakers and storytellers a unique opportunity to make a genre film in the traditional sense, but also speak directly to the modern culture and political climate. There doesn’t need to be any stand-ins for the point their making. Of course, this can be a detriment as well, handicapping them with a straightforward approach instead of a creative allegory, or compelling circumstance.

Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is a one-armed World War II veteran, having served time in Italy, who takes the train out to a remote California desert town called Black Rock, a place the train never stops. He’s in search of a Japanese farmed named Komoko, who was known to have lived in the area. Upon arrival, he makes acquaintance with the townspeople, trying to find direction or help to find Komoko. He checks into the local hotel, where he runs into local rancher Reno (Robert Ryan) and his cronies (Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin) and the town Doc (Walter Brennan). Reno seems uninterested in helping Macreedy find his man. But after he manages to rent a jeep from Liz (Anne Francis), he drives out to Komoko’s old farm to find it deserted, burnt down, and with an unmarked grave nearby. He quickly must find alliances who will help him face Reno and the others, who show him quite obviously that he is not welcome in Black Rock.

There are a lot of elements to this movie which make it one that I loved. First, I’ll start with the location. It’s confined almost entirely to a single sleepy desert town with very few buildings and townspeople. It’s a highly effective way to heighten and quicken the tension between Macreedy and the others, stuck in close proximity to one another. Sure, I might question the specific existence of a town like this one, seemingly plopped into the middle of the desert with very little meaningful surrounding it. How does the economy work here? Perhaps that’s the point, the attraction for these residents. Another great thing about the film is that it’s contained in a single day, a literal “bad day at Black Rock”. It’s just another tool on John Sturges’ toolbelt to build the tension and suspense. We don’t know who Komoko is, and even when we find out, the mystery still surrounds him with what happened, what is Reno hiding, why is Black Rock defending itself from a friendly visitor?

The cast and ensemble performance is also pretty great, led by Spencer Tracy who is a cool customer, and unencumbered by his handicap. Unflappable, he faces everything that Reno and the townspeople can throw at him. But on top of Tracy, we get to see Borgnine (again) and Lee Marvin, who will factor in significantly in the marathon in future. Their thug sidekicks are icy and intimidating, but the fight between Borgnine and Tracy is particularly telling of just who Macreedy is and what he is after. He doesn’t put up their bullshit and is unfazed by their intimidation tactics. The always delightful Walter Brennan as the Doc is once again delightful, but maybe to a lesser, more sidelined degree. Really it was just an absolute joy to see all of these players interact and come together in a small, self-contained story with stunning CinemaScope vistas in a dirty, dusty noir-modern western. Highly recommend.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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