Readers Write In #479: Classic Hollywood Recommendations: Bad Day at Black Rock

Posted on August 28, 2022


By Vijay Ramanathan

Consider the following setup for a movie: A stranger arrives in a lawless town in the middle of nowhere in search of a man whom no one in town wants to talk about. If you’ve watched a bit of World Cinema, or some old Hollywood movies, you might think that the stranger is a sword-wielding rōnin in the late 1800s striding into a remote Japanese village, or perhaps a gunslinging cowboy in the early 1900s riding into a desolate town out West. In the case of Bad Day at Black Rock, the stranger is an unarmed, middle-aged man in a dark suit stepping off a train in the town of Black Rock, Arizona, some years after World War II. This then sets up a riveting, neo-Western masterpiece by legendary director, John Sturges. 

Bad Day at Black Rock is essentially a crime story cast in the template of a Western movie. It has many of the hallmarks of a traditional Western – the good guy, the bad guy, the roughs, a lawless town “out West”, and morally conflicted characters that unearth their true core. Unlike classic, traditional Westerns, however, this movie is set in a time when World War II and its societal impact prompted difficult questions in the US about its values, and its tolerance of overt racial discrimination. Bad Day at Black Rock was one of the earliest Hollywood films to raise the issue of racial discrimination against Japanese Americans in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The movie is even more fascinating because it does this without falling into the typical “white savior” trope.

The screenplay by Millard Kaufman and Dan Macguire (adapted from a short story by Howard Breslin) blends the slow-burn of film noir with the attitude of a blazing Western. At the outset, nothing about the world of these characters is quite clear to us. The movie lures us into its brutal world by revealing aspects of characters and their motivations in bits and pieces. When John Macreedy (a brilliant Spencer Tracy) arrives in Black Rock, we’re just as oblivious as the townsfolk about him and his search for a man named Komoko. And just like Macreedy, we don’t really understand why the locals are so hostile toward him. As the characters slowly figure each other out, so do we. Is Macreedy a cop, or a federal agent, or is he there for some other purpose? Why does Reno Smith (a swaggeringly cool Robert Ryan) have so much control over the townspeople? Each step of the narrative reveals just a little bit more to us, and the movie ultimately coalesces into a satisfying whole at the very end. Kaufman and Macguire aren’t just focused on driving the plot forward, or on the issue of discrimination. They create situations that give characters time to grow and transform – be it Macreedy, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger), or Pete Wirth (John Erickson). And all this in a movie with a runtime of 81 minutes! That’s some efficient writing.

One of the salient features of Bad Day at Black Rock is how several key scenes are so precisely structured. There’s a 5-minute scene where Macreedy and Smith have an intense conversation at the gas station. It starts casually but by the end Smith has revealed his true character to Macreedy. Macreedy gains an ever-so-slight upper hand on the situation at Black Rock. There’s another 5-minute scene in a bar in which Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) provokes Macreedy. It ends with Macreedy beating down Trimble while Smith looks on from the sidelines. Smith knows now that Macreedy is not going to disappear quietly. These scenes serve a purpose in developing the characters and propelling them through the narrative while also being neat, self-contained episodes. You can watch them independently as videos on YouTube; they are just as impressive in isolation as they are in the movie.

John Sturges, and his cinematographer, William C. Mellor, utilize the Cinmascope format to maximum effect. The frames are visually striking. The shot composition is immaculate. Observe the scene in the lobby of the hotel (around the 10-minute mark) where the locals are hanging around speculating about Macreedy. Each character is placed just right. There’s a scene around the 24-minute mark by the railroad tracks where Smith is talking to his gang about getting rid of Macreedy. The vast landscape, the railroad tracks, the buildings, and the characters are all balanced perfectly. The visuals are stunning without distracting from the point of the scene. Similarly, the background score by André Previn never competes for our attention. The absence of music in certain scenes is as effective as its presence in others.

Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan are phenomenal in their roles. The supporting cast delivers a compelling performance as well. Walter Brennan is especially impressive as the local veterinarian who regains his conscience and tries to help Macreedy. Sturges extracts the best out of his actors while maintaining the tone of their performances evenly throughout the film. 

Bad Day at Black Rock is the quintessential neo-Western, noir film. It’s a masterclass in screenwriting, acting, cinematography, and direction. The movie demonstrates John Sturges’ mastery of filmmaking, and is a must-watch for cinema lovers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is streaming online in the US on The Criterion Channel streaming service, and is available digitally for rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Google Play.