Bad Day at Black Rock
Time Out New York Project: Issue #764, May 20–26, 2010
Dir. John Sturges. 1955. N/R. 81mins. Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis.
John Sturges’ macho B-picture is more brawn than brains…but what brawn! One-armed World War II vet John J. Macreedy (Tracy) comes to the way-out-west town of Black Rock in search of a Japanese farmer named Komoko. His presence upsets the precarious balance among the residents—the likes of which include a bloodthirsty Ernest Borgnine and a dryly threatening Lee Marvin—who are lorded over by the unabashedly racist Reno Smith (Ryan). Macreedy and Smith both have secrets they’re not willing to divulge, so the tension of the picture’s first half turns on how well they maintain the mystery.
With actors like Tracy and Ryan on board, suspense is all but assured; their long, shifty dialogue in front of the gas station owned by a mannishly outfitted Anne Francis in a master class in veiled, escalating threat. Yet once Macreedy delivers an awesome Borgnine smackdown, the film’s didactic theme (American atonement for the sins of WWII) gets awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings. Only the distinctively drawling character actor Walter Brennan, playing the town doctor-cum-mortician, is convincingly conflicted enough to support the half-baked redemptive message. But the scorched-earth burnish of the rest of the ensemble at least provides some virile insta-profundity.—Keith Uhlich