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By John Chard February 12, 2017
Hateful subject given a master class telling.
Produced by Dore Schary out of MGM, Bad Day at Black Rock is directed by John Sturges and stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.It's adapted by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman from the story Bad Day at Hondo by Howard Breslin. It's shot on location in CinemaScope and Eastman Color at Lone Pine, Death Valley & Alabama Hills in California, with William C. Mellor on photography and André Previn scoring the music.
A classy production that combines elements of Westerns and film noir, Bad Day at Black Rock deals with racism and all the hate and bully tactics that come with such a vile subject. It tells the story of a mysterious one armed stranger, John J. Macreedy (Tracy), who arrives at a tiny isolated town in a desert of the Southwest United States in search of a Japanese-American man. From the moment he arrives he is met with hostility and mistrust. Over the course of the day Macreedy picks apart the town to uncover the secret the townsfolk had hoped had gone away.
From the opening sequence of a bright red train rushing towards us, it's evident that we are in the modern day West. It's just after World War II and the horse trails of the old West are now frequented by jeeps and cars. Yet the hallmarks of the old West exists and thrives because of the inhabitants of Black Rock. An ignorant group of people consisting of bullies, drunks and the head in the sand softy type. Yet even tho the film is set mostly in the blazing sun, in a barren one horse Western town that time forgot, the film exudes a film noir sensibility. Dark secrets from the past weigh heavy on the shoulders of the towns big players: And Tracy's High Noon like situation is moodily paced by the wily Sturges. In fact that a film with so little "gun play" action can be so tense is no mean feat, with him yet again directing an ensemble cast to great effect.
Tracy is at his best when he is as he is here, playing subdued. Here he is a thinking man's protagonist, calm and reflective in the face of constant hostility. That he is facing an impressive line up of heavies really brings home just how thoughtful a performance Tracy gives in the piece. Robert Ryan does yet another fine turn as a complicated villain whose rage is bubbling away under the surface. While Borgnine and Marvin are memorably vile as his right hand thugs. Dean Jagger as the drunken cowardly sheriff manages to pang the heart and Walter Brennan is his usual solid impacting self. Anne Francis adds the glamour but really it's a nondescript role that the film could easily have survived without.
Clocking in at just 81 minutes the film never outstays its welcome. It looks great on DVD, and for those interested in commentary tracks, this one comes with a very good one from Dana Polan. Anyone who has not seen this film should try and seek it out. It was considered controversial back on release but now can be viewed as a smart message movie about racial tolerance. Tight, taut and expertly directed and acted, Bad Day At Black Rock is an important film from the 50s that still rings bells even today. 8/10
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