Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

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