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Bad Day at
Black Rock (1955)
Anybody who thinks noir requires rain-slick, midnight city streets needs to see Bad Day At Black Rock, a film which proves that
the glaring sun on a baked-dry desert town can provide all the meanness of any urban
jungle. This fascinating, bitter drama etches a portrait of American racism and
misanthropy in pure acid. The theme of anti-Japanese bias which was so lauded in the novel
Snow Falling On Cedars
(if not the static film
adaptation) shows up here, just ten years after World War II.
Spencer Tracy plays a nearly silent man with one arm and, apparently, one black suit. He arrives in Black Rock looking for a man named Komoko, who lived nearby until the local sociopath (chillingly played by Robert Ryan) set his house on fire and shot him. The whole town (all ten of them) knows everything that happened. The pathetic excuse for a sheriff never bothered to arrest anyone, and Ryans two thugs (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in a role menacing even by Marvins standards) keep everybody else cowering.
The film is beautifully shot in CinemaScope; the endless desert vistas, and Black Rocks few beaten buildings, are forecasts of Clint Eastwoods High Plains Drifter and Walter Hills Last Man Standing. The score, by Andre Previn, is the films one flawits quite often obtrusive, but fortunately it never totally overpowers the action.
Bad Day At Black Rock isnt a mystery, its a drama. Everyone knows what happened. Its only a question of how long before Tracy does something about it. The tension is nearly unbearable as he walks through the town, asking questions that dont have good answers. He's stalked at every step by the eyes of the locals, each one consumed either by hate or fear. When the inevitable destruction comes, its as sudden and unadorned as real-life violence. Theres no exhilaration in it; director John Sturges (who was nominated for an Academy Award for this film) isnt even a little bit interested in the all-American movie theme of redemption through bloody revenge. Tracy is simply pushed as far as he can be, and finally he has had all hes going to take, and he gives back all hes gotten and more. Spencer Tracy gives one of the great minimalist performances of all time (also winning himself an Academy Award nomination). He never wastes a word or a gesture. Sturges doesnt, eitherevery scene is delivered to the viewer as cleanly and simply as possible.
This is an amazing movie, austere and punishing. Its hard to believe its an American movie, particularly one from 1955. At a time when the nation was awash in self-congratulation, Sturges exposed the poison at the heart of American society. Bad Day At Black Rock is a masterpiece.
- Phil Freeman