Films are a reflection of the accepted social mores of the time in which they were made. But sometimes these reflections can show us a world we may not like. As America’s awareness of its social and racial intolerance was awakened in the 1950s, major studios began seeding their films with subtle reminders of our nation’s intolerance and ignorance to others. One of the best looks at this emerging subject was MGM’s Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).
In this taut, compact thriller, Spencer Tracy portrays John J. Macready, a one-armed veteran who comes to the sleepy desert town of Black Rock to look for the father of a Japanese American soldier who fought (and died) alongside him in the Italian campaign of World War II. He wants to give the man (Komoko) his son’s medals. Macready finds the town populated with either low rent thugs like Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin who are blindly loyal to town despot Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) or apathetic individuals like the town doctor (Walter Brennan), the alcoholic sheriff (Dean Jagger) or the easily manipulated hotel clerk (John Erickson) and his sister (Anne Francis). His search digs up a ‘skeleton’ long thought buried by all of the town’s residents. In the early days after Pearl Harbor, Reno killed Komoko in a rage fueled by his blind hatred of the Japanese and his jealousy over Komoko’s success. He enlisted the aid and the silence of everyone else in the town to cover up his crime. Now they all live in fear and shame of any stranger who comes to Black Rock.
Tracy investigates Komoko’s disappearance and finds the forces of evil (led by Reno) lining up against him, while the forces of good (led by Brennan) are too frightened and apathetic to line up with him. However the one-armed man galvanizes the townspeople into action and they find that they can escape the grip of evil that’s been holding them tightly.
Director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) weaves a masterful tale of evil, greed, racism, cowardice and redemption. Bad Day at Black Rock is tense and crackles with excitement. One of the best scenes in the film is when Tracy is harassed by Borgnine in the local café. You fear for Tracy who suffers in silence as Borgnine towers menacingly over him. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the finale where an unarmed Tracy outmaneuvers the gun toting Ryan and manages to burn him with a Molotov cocktail. It’s a great touch by Sturges as the burning of Reno represents a symbolic cleansing of the town.
Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock remains a great first class thriller that resonates to this day. If you’ve never seen it, make time to watch it on DVD as soon as possible. It’s that good.