Monday 19 October 2015

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

En Mand Steg af Toget
I was starting to get a bit nervous about 1955. So far the quality have markedly dropped from 1954, but then came along “Bad Day at Black Rock” and we are back in business.

This is a western transplanted to 1945 and a film noir in beautiful color. Already sounds interesting, no?

It is a lot more than just that.

A man (Spencer Tracy as John Macreedy) gets off the train in a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. We know absolutely nothing about him. Apparently this is the first time the train stops here in four years and you might expect the locals to be curious. They are, for sure, but more than that they are terrified. Macreedy goes about his business, but meets only hostility. This only deepens when he explains that he is looking for a Japanese-American called Komoko. Obviously the villagers is afraid of this stranger, but why? What are they hiding?

There is a most delicious buildup of tension in Bad Day and it is only strengthened by the very limited information we get. That means that we are left to guessing as to who this guy Macreedy is (is he a police investigator?) as well as the other way round, what dark secret are the villagers trying to keep. It very much reminds me of later Sergio Leone Westerns in that sense, but actually points straight back to the noir tradition. Disaster is looming and no amount of coolness can avert that.

The opposition to Macreedy is led by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a dominating character who seems to rule the village by sheer intimidation. As the story progress his façade starts to crack and there is a madness inside. His henchmen Coley and Hector are played by Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin and those names should generate some respect. They are perfect as badass henchmen. Borgnine the sadistic brute and Marvin the clever intimidator. There is violence in the air, nasty nasty violence.

Few people are opposed to Smith. Walter Brennan is as usual great as doc Velie, as comfortable village doctor who once decided to mind his own business, but finds inspiration in Macreedy to choose sides. The Sheriff (Dean Jagger) is a push over who at best is an unreliable ally. And that is about it.

Once Macreedy has visited the burned down homestead of Komoko it is clear that he is not allowed to leave. By nightfall they will come for him…

I loved “Bad Day at Black Rock”. It may be a short film, but it is intense. Instead of outright violence, of which there is remarkably little, it lives on tension and intimidation. It is hot in Black Rock. Dusty and dry, but that is not the only reason Macreedy is breaking a sweat. In this sense the colors are actually helping because the filters used amplify the dusty heat of the place. Black Rock is not the place you want to be.

If I should make a complaint then the resolution is a bit of an anticlimax after the tension. Halfway through we guessed what really happened four years ago in Black Rock and we are not surprised that this is indeed what happened. After all this is still 1955, it is not yet time for the big plot twists.

But I can live with that, it is a small detail.

Besides the cinematic qualities of this film there are at least two other elements of interest. Right off the bat this movie is an obvious criticism of allowing guns in the hands of unstable characters. The villagers seem ready to defend their “way of life” at gunpoint, a way of life which basically means shooting those they do not like. I know there are plenty movies like that, but here an armed group has effectively sidelined the law.

Secondly this is an argument against the racism, specifically against Japanese-Americans who were vilified after Pearl Harbour. It is I think the first American movie after the war to place a Japanese as victim.

Left is only to say, if you have only seen Spencer Tracy in silly comedies this is the movie to watch. Tracy is awesome here, just awesome.


  1. I liked this one pretty well. As you say, the reason to watch it is to see Spencer Tracy as more of a bad ass. I also like how compact this film is. It tells the story and ends without anything unnecessary.

    1. Yes, it is very compact and that is part of the intensity. The final scene with the poilice arriving is so short and is only really about the medal. Almost laconic in what it leaves unsaid.

  2. I think this is also the earliest American film I've seen that has someone using a martial art in it.

    1. Those one-handed karate moves were pretty awesome. They made Ernest Borgnine look like an idiot.
      They show that Macreedy was no push-over.

  3. It's been a long time since I saw this one. Your review has me longing to see it again.

    1. There is something to look forward to. It does not promise much, but it delivers.

  4. Excellent Hitchcockian thriller and glad you enjoyed it! The secretive and hostile community he encounters made for a tense story.

    On a side note, nice to meet a fellow Dane from Jutland in the film blogosphere, not many of them around! The only other I am aware of is Mette who is at Uni in Kbh and now writes for frenchtoastsunday

    1. That is awesome, I was feeling a bit lonesome here in the blogosphere.
      If you have not noticed already I am doing the Danish version of the List so occationally there is the odd Danish entry.
      I will add you to my blog-roll.

    2. It's a small world! I've added you to my blogroll. I have the dk edition of 1001 books from 2007 and according to the dk wikipedia I've seen about 18 of 24. Some of the older dk titles from the book are quite difficult to find, selv i hjemlandet :)
      I see you also have another blog. Do you have a list of Danish entries from 1001 Books? I would be curious to read that list

    3. I think that was the only edition to be released in Danish, so it is the same one I have. I did have some trouble with Ditte Menneskebarn, but when I found it it was worth watching.
      I am not sure if there is a Danish version of 1001 books, but the original editions vary greatly from from issue to issue, so with two different books you may come up with two very different lists. Mine is the one that was released last year and as far as I can see it is rather thin on Danish litterature.
      Held og lykke med filmene.