In Bad Day At Black Rock one-armed stranger John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, in one of his finest roles) becomes the first passenger in four years to disembark from the Santa Fe express at the small southwestern desert town of Black Rock. The year is 1945 and he’s come to the town to find a Japanese farmer and present him with his son’s posthumous war medal. But wherever he turns for help, he’s met by hostility and violence from the locals, including town ‘boss’ Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin), who are determined to prevent him from discovering the fate of the man he is looking for. Doggedly, Macreedy sets out to uncover the truth and mete out rough justice to those responsible for what happened to the farmer, helped only by Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) and Doc Velie (Walter Brennan).
Bad Day at Black Rock combines suspense and melodrama with a powerful comment on social responsibility. Tracy, as catalyst and instigator of the action, is superb but, as Variety wrote, “there’s not a bad performance from any member of the cast, each one socking their characters for full value. In addition to Tracy and Robert Ryan, credit goes to Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins and Walter Sande.”
Scoring heavily, too, was director John Sturges, whose handling was an exemplary demonstration of the art of building and maintaining tension, atmosphere and character. His deployment of William C Mellor’s Cinemascope colour camera made maximum use of his bleached location around Lone Pine, a desolate town on the western rim of California’s Death Valley, and he used Andre Previn’s score to excellent effect.
USA / 1955
Director: John Sturges
Writer: Willard Kaufman, adapted by Don McGuire, from a story by Howard Breslin
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin