Bad Day is a Good Day for Tracy
"Bad Day at Black Rock" is a fascinating movie, it's an action thriller built on 3 things and does things differently to what you expect from a normal action thriller. There are no really big chases, no romantic subplots or staged set pieces instead we are kept interested by why has a man show up in a backwater town, why are the men of the town so concerned by his arrival and finally how is he going to get out of there. As such this is a movie which keeps you on edge partly via the great performances but mort importantly by getting the answers to these questions.
Arriving in the small town of Black Rock John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy - Broken Lance) is immediately met by a sense he is not welcome. He is stared at by the locals as he walks in to town, the hotel clerk doesn't want to give him a room and he can't hire a car to head to Adobe flats. The men want to know why he is there, concerned that maybe his arrival is to with a secret they are keeping whilst Macreedy himself won't give a shred to why he has turned up unannounced. But when Macreedy tells them that he is there to visit Kumoko, a Japanese-American farmer, he finds the concern for his arrival turned up a notch as the men make it clear he won't be leaving.
Now the strength of "Bad Day at Black Rock" is in that it is mysterious right from the start as we watch John J. Macreedy get off the train at Black Rock and immediately find himself being needled by a group of men who take exception to his arrival. All we know it that he wants to go to Adobe Flat to see a man called Kumoko, what we see is that he is not welcome, the hotel doesn't want to rent him a room and there is no taxi to hire to take him there. It's mysterious and immediately we wonder why are these men so opposed to this stranger being there, they no nothing about him and they obviously have something to hide.
Now as the storyline develops we discover 3 things, we learn why Macreedy wanted to see Kumoko, we learn what the secret is that make these men so edgy and we also learn that the towns Doc & Sheriff whilst part of this group are on the edge of it, unhappy at the way Reno Smith bosses everyone around. What this means is that we now have the third question, how is Macreedy going to leave Black Rock when it becomes very evident that these men will kill to protect their secret. And rather than just serving up either something unbelievable or over the top the ending is short, real and thrilling.
But that is just "Bad Day at Black Rock" on the surface as this is a movie which is full of depth and that depth provides clues. Things such as how one of Reno's men, Hector David, refers to Macreedy as Boy insinuates some level of racism and the fact that he mocks him for having one arm establishes the sort of nasty person he is. But there are other things such as Reno explaining that he was turned away from signing up after Pearl harbour again showing a level of racial hatred in his emotions.
Now what is interesting is director John Sturges builds "Bad Day at Black Rock" so that we come to expect certain things. When we meet Liz Wirth, the only female in the movie, it wouldn't be unusual for there to be something romantic to be thrown in, but there isn't. And whilst we have a few moments of action, there is no big action scene; in fact the big action climax is minimal and beautifully shot. It's because of this the whole movie feels so different and far more interesting than a normal action thriller.
And what brings this all together are the performances and there is a lot of talent in "Bad Day at Black Rock" be it Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as two heavies, Walter Brennan as the towns Doc or Dean Jagger as the cowardly Sheriff. But it is two performances which make it really fascinating and the first is Robert Ryan whose minimilistic manipulation as Reno Smith is marvellous; it's ironic Reno doesn't do much but the way he calmly controls people is exciting. And then there is Spencer Tracy who again doesn't actually do much other than stand his ground and have fun with the fact he is playing a character with one arm. Yet it is such a wonderful performance which sucks you in because again he is a very calm figure who is not so much fearless but tackles things as they come.
What this all boils down to is that "Bad Day at Black Rock" is a wonderful movie, bordering on brilliant because it delivers something different to what you expect. It's almost a movie built on minimalism, no huge scenes but clever interactions and the continuing posing of questions keeps you watching in need of knowing the answers.