In this exciting mystery drama, the western genre meets film noir. One-armed stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by train in the small town of Black Rock. Looking for Japanese-American farmer, Kamoko, Macreedy finds the locals hostile and threatening. Convinced they have something to hide, Macreedy risks his life to solve the mystery.
Bad Day at Black Rock comes from often overlooked director John Sturges. Although Sturges brought us a number of popular hits including The Great Escape (1963), Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960 – a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), his career remains relatively under-discussed. In his obituary, The Independent put this down to his being ‘fatally dependent on the script’, describing his movies as ‘strangely impersonal affairs, rigorously bereft of stylistic trademarks or enduring thematic pre-occupations’. Nevertheless, Sturges managed to get himself a Best Director Oscar nomination for Bad Day At Black Rock and brought Spencer Tracy to a nomination for Best Actor too.
Sturges successfully draws out the strange undercurrent of passive aggressive behaviour in the town of Black Rock, the community’s hostility and their menacing intentions, to create a drama that is truly captivating. As the locals shut Macreedy out, cutting telephone lines and damaging vehicles, Macreedy becomes trapped in the town. As night falls, Sturges amps up the tension as Macreedy’s situation becomes more frightening and the community’s intentions more sinister.
Sturges arranges the actors on set to enhance the danger, often filming scenes with Macreedy sitting down while the locals stand towering above him, suggesting Macreedy’s status and isolation. Sturges also uses the cinemascope widescreen format to powerful effect, showing wide vistas and savage landscapes that tell their own story about Black Rock’s remoteness and Macreedy’s hazardous situation.
Although generally a slow burning film that builds tension steadily, there are a number of exciting events in Bad Day At Black Rock, namely a stunning car chase, a surprising fight scene and opening credits set to exhilarating music from Andre Previn that immediately pulls the audience in to the story.
Bad Day At Black Rock gained a third Oscar nomination for Best Writing. At the time, the subject matter was brave, underpinned by America’s relationship with the Japanese. As The Independent writes, Bad Day At Black Rock can ‘claim the distinction of being the first Hollywood movie ever to make reference to the country’s internment of its Japanese-born citizens’. Based on the short story by Howard Breslin, ‘Bad Time At Honda’, the screenplay by Millard Kaufman demonstrates the town’s hostility in the local’s dialogue as well as their behaviour. When Macreedy first enters the town he heads for the hotel where he is reluctantly given a room – ‘I’ll see if he’s got any iron in his blood’, says a local cowboy. The film’s characters are equally strong. As Macreedy, Tracy gives us a passionate character who is fiercely intelligent and heroic.
In a career that was reputedly hit and miss, Sturges delivers a definite hit with Bad Day At Black Rock. Beautifully shot with a top notch lead performance from Spencer Tracy, Bad Day At Black Rock is worth seeing by both western fans and those new to the genre.
VERDICT: ✭✭✭✭✩ 4/5