John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a filmic milestone for several reasons. First, it features one of the greatest American actors, Spencer Tracy, in a seminal role that proved to be his last for alma mater, MGM. Second, it was the studio’s first foray into the grandeur of widescreen with Cinemascope. Third, the film’s plot is what must be considered one of the most gritty, hard edged and hard hitting examinations of racism ever put on film.
The plot concerns war veteran, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), who lost his arm in battle. Macreedy journeys to the desolate and isolated little bit of nothing known as Black Rock where he hopes to deliver a fellow soldier’s war medal to his Japanese father. But from the moment he steps off the train, Macreedy finds himself the repository of stored tensions, fear and hatred from the town’s folk.
The chief conspirator of the plot to get Macreedy out of town is Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the guy who has the most to lose if Macreedy learns the truth. He’s aided by brute thug, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), calculated shifty-eye, Hector David (Lee Marvin) and Liz Wirth (Anne Francis, quite effect working against her goody-goody type). There’s even a bit of sadism, when some of the town’s men plot Macreedy’s demise. The only two holdouts to this appalling murder scenario are the ineffectual law enforcer, Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) and meager, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan). The town’s dirty little secret is best left uncovered for those who have yet to see the film.
Director, Sturges packs a lot into 81 minutes – raising the bar for bare-knuckled thrills. Rumor has it, Sturges didn’t think an actor of Tracy’s caliber would be interested in playing the part of the returning war veteran, so he gave the character a one-arm handicap to sweeten the deal. No actor can refuse the challenge of hamming it up. Tracy obviously didn’t and he delivers one of his two or three finest performances ever committed to film.
The DVD transfer for Bad Day at Black Rock is fairly good considering the limitations of both Cinemascope and Ansco color film stock. Though the picture is softly focused at times and colors are decided dated with pasty or orangy flesh tones, colors are adequately balanced and with a minimal amount of film grain present. The dark brown, beige and black palette of this isolated town is well served by Ansco/Eastman stock. The audio is stereo from the original 4-track magnetic master and, with decided limitations in fidelity factored in, is quite aggressive and pleasing to contemporary expectations.
Dana Polan’s audio commentary is informative but suffers from long portions of silence. Bottom line: Bad Day At Black Rock is a seminal work on a subject most film makers of this vintage rather chose to ignore. It is extremely well staged and performed and comes highly recommended to add to your collection.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)