Retro Review: ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’

It had been years since a train stopped in the small town of Black Rock. The passenger who got off the train is someone who will bring to light the town’s greatest secret as Hollywood would tackle on of America’s greatest sins. Released in 1955, a mere decade after the Second World War, Bad Day at Black Rock tackles with virulent anti-Japanese sentiment infecting the country and shows the harsh aftermath of it. This film takes that familiar trope of the Western of a lone hero coming into town to right a wrong and completely turns it around.

It is 1945 and one-armed veteran John Macreedy has arrived in the town of Black Rock looking for a Japanese immigrant named Komoko. For reasons he does not yet understand this immediately puts him at odds with the men in town led by Reno Smith. They tell the visitor that Komoko was rounded up during the Japanese internment and has not been seen since, which the newcomer has doubts about. As his investigation unfolds, Smith and his good ol’ boy network treat Macreedy with hostility trying to derail his search. Venturing out to Komoko’s old farm he finds the place burned to the ground and wildflowers growing over what he believes to be a body. Everyone encourages him to leave town, but Macreedy refuses until he gets to the bottom of things.

This movie has little time to waste as director John Sturges and screenwriters Don McGuire and Millar Kaufman as Bad Day at Black Rock is tightly constructed with little time for filler. Once John Macreedy steps off the train in Black Rock he is eyed with suspicion by the locals and we know something is going on. There is a heavy atmosphere of paranoia looming over the film as the audience, and Macreedy, knows something is wrong in this town. An injustice has definitely been committed as all the signs point to the fact that a man was murdered simply for being Japanese but who can be trusted in Black Rock to get to the truth. With all of the lingering tension it hits that much harder when the big moments happen. Being MGM’s first movie shot in Cinemascope, Bad Day at Black Rock is truly a visual feast. While this may be the desolate American west, the colors and landscapes are rich and colorful and at the same time bleak and inhospitable. For all intents and purposes this is a Western it just happens to be set in a contemporary era. This is cemented by the fact that Black Rock is a town trapped in a bygone era, and Spencer Tracy’s Macreedy represents the modern world encroaching on this way of life. The insular lifestyle which has allowed Reno Smith and his posse to think they are in the clear for murdering a man based solely on his race, is coming to an end but they are not going to give it up without a fight.

The cast is led by one of the greatest actors to ever step in front of a camera in Spencer Tracy. In a career filled with virtuoso performances the fact that a number of people say this was his best should truly mean something. His cool demeanor and black and white suit immediately set him apart from the locals who are the gruff and weathered men of the West. In a standard Western he would be the tough stalwart Gary Cooper or John Wayne-type character, instead he is a dogged everyman which makes the steadfastness with which he stands his ground all the more heroic. When we learn the reasoning of why he is looking for Komoko With the heavy influence of the film noir movement on this picture, the casting of Robert Ryan as the vile racist antagonist Reno Smith was a stroke of genius. There are definite shades of the roles he played in such pulp crime films as The Racket and House of Bamboo in this performance. Black Rock may be an insignificant Western town, but it is the insignificant Western town he lords over. The scenes they share displays a tense chemistry which sucks you in as it explores just how different these two characters are. On one hand you have Macreedy who served in World War II where he formed a close bond with a man of Japanese descent, on the other you have Smith who was deemed physically unfit for service and holds a burning hatred for the Japanese who he sees as less than human. The rest of the cast around them is nothing short of stellar filled with the likes of: Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Anne Francis, and Walter Brennan.

A Western with touches of film noir, Bad Day at Black Rock is a powerful film which once seen, sticks with you. Filled with suspense, it pulls no punches. Both Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan give towering performances which easily ranks among the best of their respective legendary careers.