SUDDENLY YOU REALIZE MURDER IS AT YOUR ELBOW – AND THERE’S NO WAY OUT!
It may be the film John Sturges wants to be remembered by. It is also a project that Don Siegel would have loved to helm. But its star, Spencer Tracy, was less than thrilled. After initially being talked into playing the lead, he started having doubts and was conned into playing ball by an MGM executive who told the star that Alan Ladd was prepared to replace him. Apparently, that was unacceptable to Tracy. In spite of his misgivings (and alcoholism), Tracy is a perfect pro throughout Bad Day at Black Rock.
In 1945, a train stops for the first time in four years at a small desert town called Black Rock. The only passenger getting off is John J. Macreedy (Tracy), a weatherbeaten older man in a black suit whose left arm is incapacitated in some way; he never takes his hand out of his jacket pocket. Macreedy is not a welcome sight, which is immediately clear to him as he begins to ask questions about a man called Komoko. After suffering hostile treatment from a local gang as well as the desk clerk at the town’s only hotel, Macreedy meets Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial “leader”. Not only does he reveal to Macreedy that he’s hated the Japanese ever since Pearl Harbor, but that Komoko is dead; Macreedy also finds out that Komoko’s home has been burned to the ground. He now realizes that something horrible has happened and that his own life is in danger.
The only reasonable men in Black Rock, the alcoholic sheriff (Dean Jagger) and the undertaker (Walter Brennan), have only the following advice to give: Find some way to get out of this town – now.
Often imitated concept
It’s funny sometimes how randomly a classic takes shape. Apparently, Macreedy’s handicap was never in the original script, but producer Dore Schary ordered it simply to give Tracy another reason to do the film; after all, how could any actor resist the temptation to play a character with a handicap? Of course, the arm becomes a key ingredient in the story; Macreedy was wounded in Italy during World War II, which not only connects him to the whole issue of how Japanese-Americans were treated in the U.S. in the 1940s, but also says something about his personality. Because the movie does come down a lot to the issue of bravery, which is not portrayed as black-and-white. Macreedy is the hero of the tale, but there are individual scenes and moments where one might question the degree of his courage, even after he is revealed to be quite a resourceful man in spite of his injury.
As a whole, this movie has become a classic primarily because of the concept of having an entire town hide a secret, which has been often imitated since. Another great idea is anchoring the story, characters and isolated desert landscape in the style of a Western (but with Jeeps instead of stagecoaches), turning the film into a symbol of how slowly every part of the countryside is inevitably conquered by modernity.
It’s a very exciting film, perfectly paced. Apparently, the legendary MGM president Nicholas Schenck felt the story was subversive and almost pulled the plug on the production. I have tried to read it from his perspective, but am still not sure what he was getting at. Perhaps he simply didn’t like how the WWII treatment of Japanese-Americans was depicted?
In the end, it’s hard to read this film in any other way than as a tribute to individual bravery against the might of a deeply immoral (and dangerous) majority. How that can be perceived as un-American is beyond me.
Bad Day at Black Rock 1955-U.S. 81 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Dore Schary. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay: Millard Kaufman. Short Story: Howard Breslin (“Bad Time at Hondo”). Cinematography: William C. Mellor. Cast: Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson… Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin.
Cannes: Best Actor (Tracy).
Quote: “You’re not only wrong. You’re wrong at the top of your voice.” (Tracy)
Last word: “As a matter of fact, when we were going to do the very first scene as [Tracy’s) walking toward me, I forgot every line I ever knew! All I saw were these two Academy Awards coming toward me! The first thing you know, we did the scene, and it was over with. Spencer came out and looked at me, and said, ‘You know something? I like you. You look a person right in the face when you talk to them. Right in the eyes.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, sir?’ He said, ‘That’s it exactly. You just keep it that way.’ The next year I beat him out for an Academy Award for ‘Marty’.” (Borgnine, Smashing Interviews Magazine)