Bad Day at Black Rock

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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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 Ryan’s two thugs (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in a role menacing even by Marvin’s standards) keep everybody else cowering.

The film is beautifully shot in CinemaScope; the endless desert vistas, and Black Rock’s few beaten buildings, are forecasts of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing. The score, by Andre Previn, is the film’s one flaw—it’s quite often obtrusive, but fortunately it never totally overpowers the action.

Bad Day At Black Rock isn’t a mystery, it’s a drama. Everyone knows what happened. It’s 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 don’t 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, it’s as sudden and unadorned as real-life violence. There’s no exhilaration in it; director John Sturges (who was nominated for an Academy Award for this film) isn’t 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 he’s going to take, and he gives back all he’s 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 doesn’t, either—every scene is delivered to the viewer as cleanly and simply as possible.

This is an amazing movie, austere and punishing. It’s hard to believe it’s 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

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