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Starring: Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin
Story: Howard Breslin
Screenplay: Don Maguire, Millard Kaufman
Director: John Sturges
Bad Day at Black Rock was Tracy’s final film for MGM, the studio of his greatest successes. His alcoholism kept him from committing to the role until producer Dore Schary appealed to his ego by assuring him that Alan Ladd had agreed to replace him, causing Tracy to agree the next day, though he would insist that Sturges replace the planned director, Richard Brooks, which ended up working out to both directors’ benefit. The film is the first for the studio in Cinemascope, the much-loved format used best for epics and Westerns, as it showed wide panoramas in glorious detail and rich color.
Tracy plays Macreedy, a WWII vet with the use of only one arm, arrived in the tiny town of Black Rock to find a Japanese man named Komoko. The locals—almost all men—are hostile to him. The weak-kneed hotel clerk doesn’t want to rent him a room, a couple men are openly threatening or at least needling (Borgnine, Marvin), and the sheriff is a drunk who’s too scared to get involved, as is the telegraph clerk. They’re all cowed by Reno Smith (Ryan, in one of his typically hard-faced, nasty roles), and it’s clear he knows something about this Komoko, though he claims the man was taken to an internment camp during the war.
Macreedy is helped a bit by Liz (Francis), who has stayed in town mainly to protect her weak desk clerk brother Pete. She rents him her Jeep so he can go out to Komoko’s property, and he narrowly escapes a serious accident when Borgnine tries to run him off the road.
The film is one tense scene after another, Sturges making the most of his one-block town and the pitilessly open, raw landscape around it. Macreedy is increasingly impressive for his calm in the face of what looks to be no escape, all the while carefully drawing out information or implying Reno’s guilt. And it really would be over for Macreedy if no one stood up to Reno. Fortunately, Doc (Brennan) gets the ball rolling, failing to get Macreedy out of town, failing to get the Sheriff (Jagger) to stand up, but finally, getting Pete to help. It leads to an exciting climax, with Reno and Macreedy in the desert, Reno firing at him while Macreedy hides behind the Jeep, though he’s a resourceful man and knows how to make a Molotov cocktail. Tracy is great throughout, a wiry sparkplug who’s smarter than anyone in town, smart enough to know when not to fight back, and he has an amazing supporting cast, with Borgnine, Marvin, and Jagger all excellent in archetypal roles, and Brennan, as he often would, nearly stealing the film with the rustic musicality of his voice and most of the best lines. I believe he described someone as “buttsprung” in the film, which I loved.
It’s interesting—even disturbing—to read that studio head Nicholas Schenck thought the film was subversive. It takes place in 1945, as WWII was about to end, and the reason Macreedy is looking for Komoko is because Komoko’s son, a G.I., saved Macreedy’s life during the war. Macreedy has been trying to give the father his son’s medal, but it turns out Reno, who had rented what he thought was arid, worthless land to Komoko, was angered when Komoko dug a well and made a success of his farm. Reno was a vicious racist, and killed Komoko, burying him on the land, and no one ratted on him. It’s appalling that nine years after the War, a story about justice defeating racism would be seen as subversive, but there you go. Tracy would go on to several films addressing social issues like racism, including his last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?