Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a 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 is one of the studio’s first forays into the grandeur of widescreen with Fox’s patented Cinemascope. Third, the plot is what must be considered one of the most gritty, hard edged and racially motivated melodramas ever put on film.
The story concerns one-armed war veteran, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) and his journey to the desolate and isolated little bit of nothing known as Black Rock. Macreedy has come to deliver a war medal to the father of a Japanese soldier killed in WWII. But from the moment he steps off the train at Black Rock he finds himself the repository of stored tensions, fear and hatred from literally all the town’s folk.
Seemingly congenial hypocrite, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) headlines the town as Macreedy’s arch nemesis. Seems he, together with boorish henchmen Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin) are keeping a dark little secret. After several polite threats geared at getting Macreedy back on his train, the trio opts instead to quietly do away with him, a move that finally incites Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) to take up a collection for the good people quietly cowering in the shadow of their shame.
Director, John Sturges packs a lot of taut sadism into 81 minutes – raising the bar for bare-knuckled thrills at every turn. Rumor has it that Sturges didn’t think an actor of Tracy’s caliber would be interested in playing the part, so he gave the character a 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.
Warner Home Video’s anamorphically enhanced DVD is quite stunning. Capturing the starkly contrasted wasteland that is Black Rock, the image exhibits a fairly refined color palette. True, flesh tones are more ruddy orange than natural – but this is an inherent shortcoming of most early Cinemascope features. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. Fine detail is evident even during dark scenes. The audio is a 5.1 remastering of the original magnetic stereo tracks. It delivers quite a wallop. An audio commentary is the only extra.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)