The end of January isn’t known for bringing the cream of the crop to theaters, and though this week’s release of the long gestating Western Jane Got a Gun excites me, it’s doubtful it’ll leave a lasting impact. Regardless, everyone loves a good Western (or Western-influenced film) starring an underdog (although there’s little comparison between Spencer Tracy and Natalie Portman). Maybe talking about 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock will remind audiences of what a Western can really do.
John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train in the little town of Black Rock, where visitors are few and far between. He’s looking for a Japanese resident named Komoko for reasons unknown. Unfortunately, the residents of Black Rock don’t like strangers, especially considering they harbor a deadly secret. When the makeshift law of the town, led by the controlling Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) want Macreedy gone, dead or alive, the one-armed stranger will have to figure out the town’s secret and make it out with his life.
The most popular film of the decade, Bad Day at Black Rock is considered a seminal film of the 1950s, particularly for being the first Hollywood statement about the racism toward the Japanese in WWII. This film pushes the boundaries out, not strictly relegating itself to Japanese racism (although that is the main thrust), but holding similar themes examined in several other films of the era like the idea of group conformity, individualism, and the condemnation of the Communist blacklist. What separates Bad Day at Black Rock from the rest is the tightly wound story that slowly peels away like an onion. Whether you figure out the town’s secret ahead of time is irrelevant, the complexity of the characters and the suspense of the story engages you throughout; there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t completely interested in the story and the film. Director John Sturges doesn’t waste a single second of the 81-minute runtime on unnecessary exposition or story. In fact this is a master class in pacing, whether it’s two hours or less, it never drags.
Everything the audience needs to know about Black Rock is established from the first frame, time stands still. Ironically, Black Rock is isolated despite having a train station and locomotive passing through all the time. The inhabitants breed their own isolation, to cover up their secret first and foremost, but also to prevent the changing world from encroaching upon them. Once in the town, Macreedy discovers the town’s shaky power structure, where authority is based on the whims of Robert Ryan’s Reno Smith. The sheriff is appointed by Smith, and when said sheriff starts questioning and flexing his authority, Reno easily passes along authority to a more amenable lackey. Exemplifying the power structure is a fantastic shot of Reno holding the jailhouse door closed with the sheriff inside. At the same time the character of Doc Velle (Walter Brennan) is the only one who doesn’t cast a suspicious eye on Macreedy, but instead becomes suspicious of the town. It’s a classic theme seen in 1950s films, that of who holds more authority, the law or science? Really, Bad Day at Black Rock doesn’t present either side as wholly right or wrong. The law is constantly shifting and dictator-like, but Doc doesn’t hold any true power either, living in as much fear of Reno as the others.
Not just a question of authority, the idea of a growing sickness is explored throughout the film. Doc Velie isn’t able to make a difference in the town, but with the arrival of Macreedy the introduction of an unknown organism starts invading and upsetting the natural order of things. Reno goes so far as to compare Macreedy to smallpox, leaving the town “in a sweat.” Doc agrees with this sentiment, although he turns it on its ear by declaring “Macreedy’s got the prescription” to save the town from collapsing in on itself. The Hollywood blacklist, and the fear of Communist infiltratration immediately springs to mind, as well as the spread of a mob mentality that would see these people murder a person in order to keep their society intact. It almost becomes ridiculous how far this group is willing to go in order to erase any illness from Black Rock. Liz (Anne Francis) says it would just be easier to give Macreedy what he wants and get rid of him, and while it would be the entire world would know about Black Rock’s sins, and Black Rock itself.
Black Rock, as a town, consists of about nine people, but everything about the town’s image is tightly controlled. Macreedy, dripping with sarcasm, says the one good thing about Black Rock is that “everybody is polite.” Courtesy in this town is as illusory as authority and individuality. Reno Smith has an amazing speech showcasing his disgust for the various definitions 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!” The arbitrary definitions of a time gone by are brought sharply into focus as Reno simply wants his idea of the West to remain unspoiled. The 1950s was filled with hostility, suspicion, and the changing mores of patriotism after a harsh war and the rise of the atomic bomb. Reno is a grand example of the angered patriot who’s desperate to serve his country after Pearl Harbor, but a physical issue prevents him.
Robert Ryan blew me away! He’s meant to be a Joseph McCarthy type if McCarthy was a tall, intimidating, and terrifying presence. Ryan’s formidable against Tracy, who looks so kindly here. Concurrently, there’s an attraction and magnetism about the way Ryan plays the role. It’s easy seeing why the beautiful Liz would find Reno so appealing. If the town of Black Rock wasn’t so corrupt it’d be easy for Ryan’s character to be a politician of some kind, and in the way he delegates power he is. Of course, Reno kills the only woman in the town making him contemptible, and in the end he gets some poetic justice as his plaintive cries for mercy fall on deaf ears (considering how Komoko was killed).
As mentioned previously, Bad Day at Black Rock was Hollywood’s biting response to Japanese racism. Ultimately, Komoko’s demise is the end result of a stew of racism, frustration, suspicion, and a wealth of other emotions that have nothing to do with him as a person. It all boils down to ethnicity, and Bad Day at Black Rock shows the harsh realities that come from zealotry and fear. Smith fights a one-man war at home, taking his frustrations out on Komoko because to him “it’s the same thing.” When Macreedy uses judo to fight one of Smith’s henchmen it calls to the audience the hope that Komoko is taking vengeance out on his murderers (and Tracy does it all one-handed!). The inhabitants are forced to confront their own inner demons as Macreedy’s influence spreads. When Smith and his gang prepare for a final confrontation with Macreedy, the one-armed stranger has it all planned out. He knows the group will attack at night as “they’d be afraid to see each other’s faces.” The fact they can’t confront each other during the day, forced to enact their darkest deeds at anonymously at night, says a lot about the future of Black Rock under Smith’s control. Pete, the young hotel clerk, (John Ericson), who Liz calls “weak,” is the one who finally reveals all about Black Rock’s past in the hopes that America’s youth will be the one to restore the land and fight prejudice. By the time the second train comes, it marks a literal second chance for the town to begin anew.
I’m probably diminishing Tracy’s involvement. From the minute he comes up against an adversary he doesn’t back down, no matter the odds. He acts like a detective, contributing to the film’s film noir elements. Not a lot is known about his past, but his determination to give Komoko a medal is heartfelt and all the exposition you need.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a film you must see film with fantastic acting is fantastic, a complex story, and the score by André Prevan is majestic, powerful and sharp with a tinkling xylophone conveying Macreedy’s suspicion of the residents.