The unassuming but forceful execution of purpose exhibited by Bad Day at Black Rock‘s John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a mysterious, no-nonsense WWII vet who exposes the titular town’s xenophobic secret, mirrors that of John Sturges, a mostly forgotten big-budget director whose diverse studio pictures were defined by their brawny, efficient craftsmanship and preoccupation with masculinity. Similar to Robert Aldrich and John Huston, two filmmakers with similar interests in classic, male-centric genres, Sturges knew how to move a story from point A to point B with a modicum of fuss and a healthy measure of gritty grace. Half a century later, his clean, evocative aesthetic and firm grasp of widescreen remain sorely underappreciated, and his wide-ranging body of work—from epics The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven to his Hemingway adaptation The Old Man and the Sea and the Clint Eastwood starrer Joe Kidd—is characterized by a competent, workmanlike sturdiness that remains all-too-prominently absent in modern Hollywood pictures.
Bad Day at Black Rock marked MGM’s first release shot in Cinemascope, and Sturges, nominated for an Academy Award for the film, transforms the expansive emptiness of his frame into an omnipresent character. After an opening credit sequence in which a train hurtles through the empty desert (an aggressive image of contemporary 1945 culture intruding into the antiquated Old West), Tracy’s Macreedy arrives in Black Rock, and his unexpected and enigmatic presence immediately sets the town on edge. Black Rock hasn’t had any visitors in four years, and this lack of tourism suits bigwig rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his thug cohorts Coley (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector (Lee Marvin) just fine, since it allows them to maintain control over a community gripped by guilt over the death of a Japanese farmer named Komoko. Macreedy has come looking for Komoko, yet even before he’s encountered his less-than-hospitable hosts, Sturges presents his perilous position in the town via wide shots that strand Tracy amid the unwelcoming, oppressively vast landscape. A civilized L.A. man out of his element in the primal country, Macreedy—whose black suit and handicap (he’s missing his left hand) further mark him as an outsider, and who is regularly positioned on-screen in spatial contrast to his enemies—is menaced not only by Smith but by the natural world itself, which envelops him like a snake wrapping its jaws around its prey.
Millard Kaufman’s script, adapted from Howard Breslin’s short story “Bad Time at Hondo” by Don McGuire, is faithfully set in the mold of High Noon, both with regards to its surface narrative about one decent man standing against a band of ruffians and in terms of its allegorical confrontation of the Hollywood Blacklist. The film’s indictment of those who both spearheaded, and submissively accepted, the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s actions is complemented by the anxiety of film noir and an adherence to traditional western tropes. During his 24 hour stay in Black Rock, Macreedy—a meddlesome intruder Smith likens to “a carrier of smallpox,” and whom he desperately wishes to kill—discovers a town plagued by hatred, guilt, cowardice, and hypocrisy, in which men (and an out-of-place Anne Francis) either actively encouraged or shamefully sat by and allowed Smith to violently act on his bigotry. The silence of nominally “good” characters like Doc (Walter Brennan) and booze hound Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) is ultimately as damning as the brutality of Smith and his goons. “I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy…Mostly, I try to mind my own business,” claims Doc when confronted by Macreedy’s dire situation, thus providing a verbal crystallization of how passivity can also function as repugnant collusion.
Shot in 1955, Bad Day at Black Rock was one of Hollywood’s first productions to directly tackle WWII internment of Japanese-American citizens, an incident of paranoia-fueled prejudice that nicely jibes with the film’s critique of McCarthy-era distrust. “They’re every one of them locked up,” says weak-kneed Pete Wirth (John Ericson) about his hotel’s rooms, though when coupled with Smith’s description of the Japanese as “mad dogs” and confession about his anger over Pearl Harbor (and frustration at not successfully enlisting), the comment also subtly alludes to U.S. wartime incarceration policy. Tracy embodies Macreedy with his trademark noble strength, using his calm, burly physicality and wry sense of humor (via needling retorts to threats) to get under the skin of his adversaries. And though the film shrewdly refuses to turn its hero into a martyr (Macreedy may be determined to unmask the town’s crime, but he’s primarily concerned with trying not to suffer Komoko’s fatal fate), his employment of karate chops to fell Borgnine’s deliciously nasty Coley stands as the film’s surrogate attempt on behalf of Japanese-Americans to deliver payback for their unjust imprisonment.
Sturges laces his allegory with mounting tension, a handful of crackling action sequences, including a crackerjack car chase in which Borgnine’s heavy attempts to run Macreedy’s jeep off a rocky precipice, and dry wit (“You look like you need a hand,” Marvin’s Hector jokes to Macreedy as the crippled man tries to carry his bags to his hotel room). That Tracy is too old to be a WWII vet, and that the film’s soft ending disingenuously affords Black Rock’s too-little too-late repentant characters atonement for rejecting Smith’s bullying, isn’t nearly as problematic as André Previn’s pestering score, which encroaches on the action at every available opportunity and, as a result, doesn’t afford the film’s suspense adequate room to breathe. Suffocating musical accompaniment notwithstanding, however, Sturges’s incisive film, not unlike the streamliner whose transcontinental transportation of modernity spells obsolescence for the frontier’s myths and outmoded notions of justice and virtue, delivers a penetrating portrait of the vileness of intolerance and the dire consequences of craven conformity.