Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a color film noir classic with a neo-Western setting, offering a thrilling paranoiac small-town murder story in which Spencer Tracy roughs up against some brilliantly played rough and tough local talent in a desert town.

Directed by John Sturges and starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, Bad Day at Black Rock is the sure-fire best deepest and most entertaining colour film noir of the era — if indeed we are classifying it as such!

The film was based on a short story called Bad Time at Honda by Howard Breslin, published by The American Magazine in January 1947. Filming began in July 1954 and the movie went on national release in January 1955. It was a box office success and was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1956. In 2018, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"

The bad-ass desert town-dwellers, led by film noir's own Robert Ryan are as immortal immoral crew as cinema ever created. They would be great with their own mini-series, Thugs of Black Rock, or similar.

The fascination with classification becomes stressed when it comes to certain films. The frustration that a film cannot be classified creates an uneasy feeling in the marketing department, as it does in the mind of the completist, who cannot say what a film is and so cannot talk as emphatically as they might.

What should the completist say about Bad Day at Black Rock? It is a film to be enjoyed by anyone.

Opening shots of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) draws us much noir in with each breath as it does with the Western — of which it is a rough variety — the neo-Western. It is the work of John Sturges, one of the best of the Golden Era, before it and beyond it too. The neo-Western is a Western by any other name and fact except for the notion that the mis en scene is not the wild west. Bad Day at Black Rock is as much classic film noir as it is classic anything else — even classic neo-Western (also known as Contemporary Western) — including classic Robert Ryan and Spencer Tracy, with classic Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in a classic setting, being Lone Pine.

While the film is essentially a crime drama set in 1945, it is recognised as a neo-Western with strong links to the revisionist Western genre

This dusty desert film noir offers some speculation on how distant overseas wars affect those on the home front, and has strong themes of racial prejudice. It's the dark edges provided by the film noir style that bring this adventure to life.

The stranger in town motif as a motivating trope is more Western than it may be noir, but the modern setting of this, and that will notably include the suits and other accoutrements of noir, are not lacking.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) can be compared to High Noon because it features a man taking on several bad guys at once while the surrounding townspeople do nothing. The script by Millard Kaufman is bold and hot as a desert rock as it begins to drip with racial hatred and misguided American patriotism. 

Andre Previn’s score matches the force of the train which blows in fury across the plains, in a most arresting and dramatic set of credits. The widescreen Panavision photography of William C. Mellor makes a marvel of the now immortal town of Black Rock and its flat and hostile desert terrain. This is one of film history’s most classic western locations — the Lone Pine area at the foot of Mount Whitney at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas.

Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan is a classic type of American, the sort that never dies from decade to decade and century to century:

“Somebody’s always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West — they say we’re all poor and backward, and I guess we are, we don’t even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West, and I wish they’d leave us alone!”

Spencer Tracy plays the quite unforgettable John Macreedy a man unflappable in black under the searing sun and never allowing his handicap to impede his martial arts skills. As Macreedy Spencer Tracy personifies coolness and always appears to be several steps ahead of those conspiring against him. Robert Ryan is as smooth as ever playing the villain, a kind of cold-hearted bully-gang-leader, keeping the town in line with Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin brutalising the new guy from the off.

Smith: I want to apologize for some of the people in town.

Macreedy: They act like they're sittin' on a keg.

Smith: A keg...? Of what?

Macreedy: I don't know. Diamonds? Gunpowder?

Smith: (disarmingly) Oh, it's nothing like that. We're suspicious of strangers is all. Hangover from the old days. The Old West.

Macreedy: I thought the tradition of the Old West was hospitality.

Smith: (sincerely) I'm trying to be hospitable, Mr. Macreedy. You going to be around long?

Macreedy: Could be.

The crime at the centre of Bad Day At Black Rock reveals the mistreatment of Americans of Japanese descent during the War, supplying a full on film noir modern social message to go play with its stylistic Western elements. The scene of a remote town struggling with a dark past does actually require a mythical warrior for justice, as witnessed in many more western movies before and since, most especially those grand and legendary violent fable westerns made by Clint Eastwood.

The proper use of Cinemascope

In some ways it’s a noir film, but with all the noir hallmarks turned upside down.  The hero really is a hero.  The darkness of city streets has been replaced by the bright desert sun and open vistas. 

It's a western set in a wide open and wild space that is filled with danger and treachery. The ideal of the lone lawman out for revenge and justice is also typical of the Western style, although the film noir style introduces the concept of the anti-hero. John J. Macreedy is provocative and carries a most visible disability, which does not impeded or stop him. He is an anti-hero insomuch as we wonder iof he does really want justice, or if in fact he his driven by something else. His bcal city suit is so out of place in the desert, too, indicative of the classic film noir medium being driven into the sunlight, into the widls, out of the city, and yet into a similar milieu of evil.  

Black Rock is different from the habitual busy and well-occupied wild western frontier. Black Rock is a static and festering place, immortally captured in the opening shots as Macreedy's great train arrives. It's sparse and so are the souls that wander there, seemingly to do nothing, occupying their empty hotel, the gang of bullies are the only characters in this unfinished looking townscape, and with no extras the feeling of isolation is unique in its highly unusual look. It is a complete isolation that is suggested from the off, with the striking line of the high speed train looking in shot after shot like it is searching for Black Rock.

There in Black Rock, the atmosphere made by John Sturges is of a deliberate doing of nothing, which pervades the entire atmosphere of the place, which is deserted and of course with a fully booked hotel of empty rooms. It is beautifully put together with Robert Ryan's attitude as Reno Smith, as a type of illiberal white American that is a real pastiche of a worldview that is always there, in pastiche if not in reality. In this capacity racism becomes Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) as a brilliant and maybe even the first fully capable neo-Western while also ranking as a film noir, while also being in colour.

Macreedy: I was looking for a man named Komoko.
Smith: Komoko, sure, I remember him, Japanese farmer. Never had a chance.
Macreedy: Oh?
Smith: He got here in '41, just before Pearl Harbor. Three months later, they shipped him off to a relocation center. Tough.
Macreedy: You don't happen to remember which one they sent him to, do you?
Smith: Who knows? Why don't you try writing him? I'd be glad to help you out.
Macreedy: No, I'm afraid you'd be wasting your time. I've already written him but they don't forward my letters. They keep sending them back.
When Macreedy strolls down to Doc Velie's establishment, identified on its windows as VETERINARY, MORTICIAN, T.R. Velie., Jr. he finds Doc Velie sipping a glass of milk. Macreedy tries to telephone the state police to report a possible crime against the missing farmer, but since the phone lines are switched through the hotel desk and controlled by Pete —  a sign behind him reads "SMILE" —  Macreedy is prevented from reaching the outside world 

The doc explains how people have come out west to their area with misguided dreams to try mining, farming, and other unsuccessful methods to become prosperous:

First, I sell 'em a piece of land. Do you think they farm it? They do not. They dig for gold. They rip off the topsoil of ten winding hills, then sprint in here all fog-heaved with excitement, lugging nuggets - big, bright, and shiny. (rhetorically) Is it gold? It is not. Do they quit? They do not. Then they decide to farm, farm in a country so dry that you have to prime a man before he can spit. Before you can say 'Fat Sam,' they're stalled, stranded, and starving. They become weevil-brained and buttsprung. So - I bury 'em. But why bore you with my triumphs?

Robert Ryan as Reno functions as a demagogue in the style of Senator Joseph McCarthy who is also associated with racist, prejudicial hatred for the Japanese during the war. Smith laments how various groups use the so-called West for their own purposes, including historians, book writers, and business developers. Macreedy knows what he is uncovering through, and this is a lot of the power of the movie — that Macreedy knows he is finding a violent  past secret here in the West in the murderer of a Japanese farmer by some crazed, roughneck types trying to hide their hatred.

Smith: Why would a man like you be looking for a lousy Jap farmer?...I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to get you mad.
Macreedy: What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?...The Japanese make you mad, don't they?
Smith: Well, that's different. After that sneak attack on Pearl Harbor - Bataan
Macreedy: Komoko made you mad.
Smith: It's the same thing. Loyal Japanese-Americans, that's a laugh. They're all mad dogs. What about Corregidor, the death march?
Macreedy: What did Komoko have to do with Corregidor?
Smith: He was a Jap, wasn't he? Look, Mr. Macreedy, there's a law in this county about shootin' dogs. But when I see a mad dog, I don't wait for him to bite me. I swear, you're beginning to make me mad.
Macreedy: All strangers do.
Smith: No they don't. Not all of 'em. Some do when they come around snooping.
Macreedy: Snooping for what?
Smith: I don't know. Outsiders coming in looking for something.
Macreedy: Looking for what?
Smith: I don't know. Somebody's always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historians, it's the "Old West." To the book writers, it's the "Wild West." To the businessman, it's the "Undeveloped West." They say we're all poor and backward and I guess we are. We don't even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West. And I wish they'd leave us alone.
Macreedy: Leave you alone to do what?
Smith: I don't know what you mean.
Macreedy: What happened to Komoko?
Smith: He went away, I told you. Shortly after he left, some kids went out there. They got foolin' around and burned his place down. That's how it was. You know how kids are.

This dark secrecy and paranoia are what give Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) its very own noir chops. As well as people's weakness for hatred and a class town bully, the political side is deep, although explained through the fantastic happenings of western and noir opera.

Better still and quintessentially noir is the question as to who Macreedy really is. Before he is anything else, it turns out that Macreedy is mythical in his status, background and behaviour. Above everything he is a veteran, and his wound is the result of the War, and Macreedy makes an interesting addition to the Returning Veteran in film noir category.

Macreedy is a wounded, one-armed nomad in post-war America, and explains how he was "washed-up," and planning to resign "from the human race" in South America or the "islands," and "looking for some place to get lost" because he was afraid he "couldn't function any longer." It is one of the great devices of film noir of the 1940s to show the returning veteran meeting some mooks and thugs who've been spending the war fighting civilians, and finding a purpose in setting this to rights. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is almost a historical noir in that it is set ten years before it was made, time enough for all veterans of World War 2 to be disperesed in the narratives of the naked cities . . . although Korean War veterans were returning as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) was released. 

As a veteran, Macreedy's encounter with this injustice serving the memory of the father of the man who saved his life becomes a huge call back to action for him. What is best about Macreedy is his ghost-like status, that mythic quality, as revealed when it turns out like the best avengers in cinema  . . .  he does not exist.

When the telegraph agent receives a message in his office from the private detective in Los Angeles, and runs with it on a sheet of paper to Reno. he reports: 

"Never heard of him...there's no John J. Macreedy. No listing, no record, no information - nothing."

Smith walks a few paces down the tracks where he conspires with Coley and Pete to rid the town of Macreedy whom he refers to rather starkly as "a carrier of small pox" who has already infected four townsfolk: Hastings is in a "sick sweat," Doc has become "snotty" for the first time in four years, "stupid" Liz has rented him a jeep, and the "rum-dum" Sheriff is all of a sudden pretending to be act like a man of the law:

Coley: I think Macreedy's a nothin', a nobody...So there's nothin' to worry about...What can he find out? That Komoko...Suppose he finds out.
Smith: A nobody like Macreedy can raise a pretty big stink. The point is - who'd miss a nobody like Macreedy if he just, uh, say, disappeared? Who, Coley?...
Pete: Why don't we wait?...I mean, maybe he won't find anything. Maybe he'll just go away.
Smith: Not Macreedy. I know those maimed guys. Their minds get twisted. They put on hair-shirts and act like martyrs. All of 'em are do-gooders, freaks, troublemakers.
Pete: Let's wait and see. There's no danger yet.
Smith: (To Coley) No danger, he says. This guy's like a carrier of small pox. Since he's arrived, this town has a fever, an infection, and it's spreading.

The town, which is really only four or five people in this fantastic milieu   must assess its collective guilt and restore law and order, by facing this racist murder. The idea of the town . . . best expressed as a concept of invisible people . . . boldly made invisible by director John Sturges . . . is just as conceptual an entity as the anonymous avenger, as played by Spencer Tracy. The two are concepts at play in a fascinating fable about American life.

The story is that the Japanese farmer had bought an arid area of no-good land from no-good Smith, but resourcefully made it prosperous after digging a sixty-foot deep well. Along with other patriotically drunk men one night after Pearl Harbor, Smith harassed Komoko, set his house on fire, and shot him. Afterwards, the accomplices covered up the murder.

As Macreedy is  about to leave Black Rock and the Streamliner train's horn is heard in the distance. At the jailhouse, two state police cars take away the handcuffed prisoners: Smith, Coley, Hector, Sam, Pete and Hastings.

Macreedy boards the train to leave, with the future of the town left in an ambiguous state.

Conductor: What's all the excitement? What happened?
Macreedy: A shooting.
Conductor: Thought it was something. First time the Streamliner's stopped here in four years.
Macreedy: Second time.

Fascinating locale visiting at Lone Pine:

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