Nobody comes to Black Rock. Not ever. Barren, washed-out, and desolate – that’s what it is. And home to a terrible truth carefully concealed beneath its dusty exterior. Until now, perhaps, for here comes a train, hurtling through the desert in its direction; for the first time in four years it stops at this remote place, ejecting a lone figure into the cauldron of a summer’s day. He’s John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man on a mission, soon to instil fear of the unknown into the stilted and menial lives of the town’s few inhabitants.
John Sturges’s 1955 masterpiece Bad Day at Black Rock rolls across the screen like distant thunder, slowly accumulating existential force. Macreedy’s arrival is such an anomalous occurrence he immediately draws the fascinated attention of the suspicious locals. Figuring intimidation will be the most effective means of uncovering his closely-guarded intentions, they set about testing his mettle, to see if he’s got “any iron in his blood.”
Macreedy is a fascinating, complex character: cagey, cool, but above all, dignified in the face of their torment and scare tactics. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a landowner and figurehead of the town, who walks over the presiding sheriff (Dean Jagger) as if he doesn’t exist, is cordial and amenable to Macreedy, whilst using his heavies, Hector (Lee Marvin), and the dimwitted Coley (Ernest Borgnine) to unnerve the stranger and scatter his secret into the light of day.
Black Rock is guarding a nasty secret, openly acknowledged by pensive stares and the whispered query of their inner circle’s weakest link, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), begging “What if he finds out?” More than anyone, Smith is alert to the danger signs and potential ramifications, for it’s beginning to feel as though Macreedy is some insidious and rebellious part of their collective conscience, arriving with the express purpose of opening their wounds and exposing them to their guilt. But what exactly are they guilty of?
Macreedy’s queries revolve around a Japanese farmer who lived some ways out of town but seems to have vanished. Under the nervous scrutiny of Smith and his men, he visits key figures: the pathetic, ailing sheriff, the lone female (Anne Francis), the mortician (Walter Brennan); on each occasion extracting tiny measures of discord from what remains of their weakening defences – a barrier constructed against any conscious acknowledgment of the past. The guilt, he finds, is a pervasive force, clinging to their thoughts like dust to their lapels. At first outnumbered, he finally uncovers the allies who might help him thwart Smith’s plans to bury him deeper than the Japanese farmer.
Bursting with portentous meaning, Sturges’ film, based on a story by Howard Breslin and adapted by Don Maguire and Millard Kaufman, remains a screenwriter’s masterclass. Set in 1945, just months after the end of the war, it’s overflowing with wordy interplay; sharp, caustic dialogue that zings off the page, illuminating the tortured souls of Macreedy and his combatants with bleak insights and jagged poetical allusions.
Tracy’s portrayal of Macreedy is one of his most memorable roles and the film’s heart and soul. He arrives in this godforsaken place broken and disillusioned, regarding himself as no longer a viable member of the human race, and yet, in drawing out the ugly details of a terrible dark allegiance – forged in blood and a deep-seated racism – he rediscovers a resolve to preserve his own mortality.
At an economical 80 minutes, not a word, not a gesture, is wasted or misplaced. This magnificent film, shot in glorious cinemascope by William C. Mellor and featuring an ominous and, at times, propulsive score from Andre Previn, works its timeless magic again and again. With every viewing it’s like revisiting an old friend but with more knowledge and depths discovered anew. A truly must-see cinematic experience.