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DVD Review: Bad Day At Black Rock

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Black Rock: A town out in the middle of nowhere in the California desert.

Yet one day, shortly after the end of World War II, an exciting event occurs here. For the first time in four years, the streamliner makes a stop here. Out of it comes one man named Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), who is also crippled in his left arm. The other townspeople become suspicious when Macreedy asks to go to Adobe Flats to see a Japanese man named Komoko. Macreedy can’t understand why; he’s just wants to speak to Komoko about his son, whom Macreedy served with in Italy. Komoko’s son had died defending Macreedy and for this he was awarded a medal that Macreedy wants to present to Komoko. But something is fishy about this town. It’s concealing a secret past, a past that Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his henchmen Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin) want to keep secret.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is exciting and suspenseful from start to finish, thanks to the strong, convincing performance of Spencer Tracy (Best Actor Oscar nominee) as the crippled, mysterious, and tough loner Macreedy. Tracy’s Macreedy is rather different from other such western heroes of the period. For one thing, he is almost impossible to break. He knows that if he strikes first, the others will beat him up and call self-defense. He also doesn’t react because he can’t do much with one arm (or so we think).

Ryan, Borgnine, and Marvin are all equally impressive as men who want to push Macreedy over the limit, yet can’t seem to faze him. They also run the town, although neither of them is officially sheriff. The real sheriff is a drunken coward played wonderfully by Dean Jagger. He is also one of the few who befriends Macreedy. The others include a friendly doctor, T.R. Velie (Walter Brennan), and Liz Wirth (Anne Francis), the sister of Pete Wirth (John Ericson).

The music score, cinematography, and direction by the too often underrated John Sturges are also excellent. The score gives the movie another emotional level while the photography gives the desert a foreboding look. The screenplay was written by Don McGuire and adapted from the short story “Bad Time at Hondo” by Howard Breslin.

The movie may serve as a political allegory to the McCarthy Era. Macreedy was instantly suspected and accused by the townspeople before they could even get to know him. All he had to do was walk into town. The movie also serves as a statement against the racism suffered by Japanese-Americans in World War II. Now some of this is excusable (we shipped them off to internment camps out of paranoia and, contrary to some beliefs, they were not death camps but rather large prisons), but what happened to guys like Komoko is not easy to excuse.

The movie has elements of film noir. Macreedy has the toughness of someone like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, yet is also calm and collected. And often, he is a loner. The people in the town, the males at least, are bad guys the likes of those that were dealt with by Spade and Marlowe. And Anne Francis as Liz Wirth is, to some extent, a femme fatale. She doesn’t turn out to be as friendly to Macreedy as originally thought. And her fate is similar to that which noir tough girls usually got. Film noir is also a genre concerned with guilt and crime, two things which are definitely part of this town’s history.

For young actors, if you want to see acting at its finest, I would say watch every single Spencer Tracy performance ever given, but make sure you put this film at the top of your list.

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  • WARNING: Based on the evidence, which he has not bothered to refute, Joseph Arthur Clay is a plagiarist. See here.