Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Breakdown by The Hestinator (Brandon)
A mysterious man with only one functional arm arrives in a tiny, remote American Western town shortly after the end of World War II and starts asking a bit too many questions about a secret held by the locals.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy
Possibly one of the first great action heroes to be named “John,” Macreedy is a tight-lipped veteran of World War II who has use of only one arm. I’m not sure if the movie ever makes it clear if it’s a prosthetic or if it’s just limp. Anyway, due to having only one hand, Macreedy’s mastered the art of karate and isn’t afraid to use it. Yes, you heard me right: Spencer Tracy is a martial artist in this 1955 film. I would’ve loved to see him square off against Steven Seagal if they were contemporaries in show business. Not only can he beat your ass with only arm, but he’s skilled in making makeshift Molotov cocktails while under heavy enemy fire. He’s a tough-as-nails man of integrity who’s come to deliver justice to this sleepy, little town.
Walter Brennan as Doc Velie
Doc Velie, played by Walter Brennan, is the town of Black Rock’s doctor, veterinarian, and undertaker. His welcoming office has a big, ol’ coffin right in the corner (and he’s gonna need it, too…). At first, the good doctor is the only friend that John J. Macreedy has in the community. He feels guilty over something, and Macreedy wants to get to the bottom of things. Despite playing allies, Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan didn’t get along during filming due to political differences (Tracy being a liberal and Brennan being a conservative). Their feud involved the number of Oscars they had won, of all things. Walter Brennan would put three fingers up in the air, to indicate the three Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards he had won, compared to Tracy’s mere two Oscars for Best Actor (what a loser!). Get a room, you two!
THE BAD GUY:
Robert Ryan as Reno Smith
The MAGA-hat-wearing sumbitch Reno Smith may not be mayor or sheriff, but this asshole is the real power in Black Rock. If he doesn’t like the job you’re doing as lawman, he’ll rip the badge right off your chest and pin it on one of his lackeys. As the “boss” (and pinball wizard) of the town, he largely takes it upon himself to ensure that no big-city folks uncover the local secret. If it means murder, then so be it.
Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin Coley Trimble and Hector David
Reliable tough guy actors Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin play Reno Smith’s two henchmen, Coley Trimble and Hector David. They don’t appear to be of the intelligent sort (Marvin spends most of the picture with his mouth agape, looking like a real doofus), but I still wouldn’t tangle with them. Borgnine’s Coley tries to intimidate Macreedy by running him off the road during a short car chase, and later confronts Tracy’s character in the local diner (more on that later…). Marvin’s Hector sees less action, but at least we get to see him being conked on the head by a firehose.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
There’s not too much ultra-macho posturing here. Lee Marvin lets Spencer Tracy finish his bath before giving him a talking-to in the latter’s hotel room. I do find the scene with Walter Brennan knocking out Marvin with a firehose to be a little erotic, though. Was it a metaphorical dickslap?
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
There are really not enough women in the movie for it to be full-on misogynistic. The only female in the entire flick is Liz Wirth (Anne Francis), Bad Rock’s mechanic. This film was directed by John Sturges, the man who gave the world The Great Escape (1963), after all. Liz Wirth’s mercifully avoids becoming a love interest for anybody, but she does get capped in the back at the end. Oops, Spoiler alert.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 2 ]
The body count for Bad Day at Black Rock is microscopic. Both deaths come during the finale, with Anne Francis being shot by Robert Ryan, and then Spencer Tracy lighting Ryan up like a Christmas tree with a Molotov cocktail that he made right there on the spot. A grave with some wildflowers over it is shown, but we never see the corpse or its remains. Ernest Borgnine gets the shit beat out of him by Tracy and Lee Marvin is rendered unconscious by a firehose.
The violence in the production is pretty tame. There’s some mild blood on a dead deer that a group of people hunted, Borgnine gets a nosebleed during his “fight” with Tracy, and a stuntman gets burned up real good, but there’s no gore or anything like that.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
C’mon, you know that I’ve got to choose the karate fight in the diner for this category! While visiting the local eating establishment, Robert Ryan starts playing a game of pinball, while Ernest Borgnine pours some ketchup on Spencer Tracy’s meal. Tracy doesn’t like ketchup and proceeds to unleash his martial arts skills on Borgnine. It’s not even a fair fight, and you actually sorta end up feeling sorry for Ernest as he gets tossed around like a ragdoll. Like the other action scenes in Bad Day at Black Rock, it’s short, but it certainly leaves an impression. This wasn’t the first martial arts duel in American cinema history – as the judo fight involving James Cagney in Blood on the Sun (1945) will attest – but it still must’ve blown away audiences in the 1950s.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
Showdown at Adobe Flat
At night, Spencer Tracy and Anne Francis drive out to the site of Bad Rock’s terrible secret, where they’re confronted by a gun-toting Robert Ryan. Shots ring out, and Francis walks over to Ryan to try to talk some sense into him. Wrong move. Robert Ryan doesn’t give a shit about negotiating, and shoots her, marking the first kill of the film. While all of this is going down, Tracy is seeking cover behind the car, when he notices an empty glass bottle. He takes it, empties some gasoline from the automobile into it, ties his tie around the new Molotov cocktail, and breaks out his zippo lighter to ignite the fuse. Did I mention that he does all of this with one arm? I wish that I had skills like that. As Ryan approaches, Tracy chucks the explosive and burns the attacker to death. That’s how you do it!
Okay, we’re circling back to the diner confrontation for this category. Spencer Tracy just wants something to eat, when Ernest Borgnine starts trying to push his buttons. Borgnine yells a certain accusation at Tracy (which I won’t reveal the nature of, to avoid spoilers for a little while), with the latter replying thusly:
“You’re not only wrong… you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”
Bad Day at Black Rock was the movie that put director John Sturges on the map. He earned his only Oscar nomination for Best Director for his exemplary work here. As you may know, Sturges would later go on to direct the Earth-shaking masterpieces The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). The Eagle Has Landed (1976) is also excellent, but calling it a “masterpiece” is a stretch that I’m not willing to make at the moment. Bad Day at Black Rock still holds up as one of his best motion pictures, with my score for it being nine-outta-ten.
This work of cinema probably can’t be considered a true action film (it’s really more of a thriller-western, with some noirish touches), but I’d say that it’s action-adjacent. The only three action sequences in the movie are short, but their restraint only adds to their excitement value. The car chase, if it can even be called that, does have some unconvincing rear-projection when focusing on the drivers, but the wide shots are surprisingly thrilling. The karate “fight” (more of a non-lethal massacre) in the diner is also very brief, but is high-impact. The final showdown at Adobe Flat is also a joy to behold.
Sure, Bad Day at Black Rock has a dude being lit on fire (in a death scene that’s actually kind of poetic), but it’s the film’s politics that get under the audience’s skin. Similar to the western masterwork High Noon (1952), this flick deals with the plight of the honest man who stands alone in a hostile town. In this movie, we get to see the darker side of small-town America. We see the dark side of vigilante “justice.” We see the dark side of local loyalty and the community spirit. This is one of the few American pictures to deal with Japanese American internment during World War II, something you may not expect to see in a mainstream U.S. flick from the 1950s.
The all-star cast here does a great job. The characters played by Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine have already been commented on, but what about the people who’re caught in the middle of this good-versus-evil struggle? One of them is Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), the drunken, easily-pushed-around sheriff. There are also the Wirth siblings – Liz (Anne Francis) and Pete (John Ericson). As I mentioned earlier, Liz is the town mechanic, and Pete runs the front desk at the hotel. Which side will these folks come down on when the shit hits the fan? Will they stand up for justice, or will they cowardly remain loyal to Black Rock? As I stated earlier, Liz avoids becoming a love interest for anybody, which is refreshing to see.
Bad Day at Black Rock has some interesting cinematography. There are not really any close-ups, only medium and wide shots. Maybe they were trying to show off the relatively new widescreen format? The competent musical score was provided by André Previn. Apparently, it was originally decided that the movie would have no music, only atmospheric sounds (my mind goes to the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West [1968). I guess that idea was overridden.
According to IMDb, the censors weren’t always a fan of this one. The Trivia page says that Hollywood’s Production Code Administration initially objected to Spencer Tracy’s character’s use of karate, feeling that it was “not fighting heroically.” They got over it, though, when they learned that the character had only one functional arm, and thus was at a bit of a disadvantage. The Alternate Versions page says that Great Britain censored some footage during its first run. The Brits left Lee Marvin getting bonked by Walter Brennan’s firehose and Robert Ryan getting torched on the cutting room floor at first.
This classic’s name hasn’t gone unnoticed by pop culture. One episode of the action-comedy television show The A-Team is named “Black Day at Bad Rock,” and there’s a Tom and Jerry short named Bad Day at Cat Rock (1965). The title comes from the 1947 short story that the picture is based on – Bad Time at Honda (yes, “Honda,” like the car company). However, this was changed to avoid confusion with the John Wayne western Hondo (1953). While filming, temperatures reached over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit on set, with Spencer Tracy threatening to leave the production for whatever reason (I’m sure his beef with Walter Brennan wasn’t helping things).
This is one of the best modern-day westerns of all time. Okay, maybe “modern-day” isn’t the best way of describing a 1955 movie set in late 1945, but you gotta work with me, people. Sure, Bad Day at Black Rock has a few moments that could be described as “talky,” but this film is tight. It runs only eighty-one minutes, and never loses the viewer’s attention. This is director John Sturges doing what he does best: straightforward, manly, action-oriented stories with all-star casts and taut pacing. It may not be a thrill-a-second actionpalooza, but this terrific thriller-western provides some excitement while making you think at the same time.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
People wearing red baseball caps were racist even back in 1945.
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
 Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
 Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
 Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[X] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket, Or A Towel
 Giant Explosions
 Heavy Artillery
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
 Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
 Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
 Manly Embrace(s)
 Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
 Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
 Shoot-Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
 Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figures
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
 Torture Sequence(s)
 Unnecessary Sequel
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice