Directed by John Sturges
Written by Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire (based on a short story by Howard Breslin)
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ann Francis, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine
Tagline: They’re going to kill you . . . with no hard feelings!
Trivia: Ernest Borgnine, in such of awe of co-star Spencer Tracy , only referred to him as Mr. Tracy.
Released in 1955 as the McCarthy era began to ebb, Bad Day At Black Rock is a story of moral courage and the consequences of burying history.
The year is 1945. The setting an isolated town in the desert. Spencer Tracey plays John J. MacReedy, a disabled veteran who arrives at Blackrock for an unspecified reason. Right from the get go the locals treat Macreedy with suspicion and hostility. We learn Macreedy wants to pay final respects to the father of the soldier who saved his life in the war, a Japanese-American man who according to the locals was sent to an internment camp (a subject rarely mentioned in American film) and never returned.
When you have Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine as the heavies, don’t expect things to go smoothly. All three of them are local roughnecks who do not take kindly to strangers and are hiding a dark secret. These guys run the town and intimidate anyone anyone who challenges them with physical violence. When Macreedy discovers the truth about his friend’s father, he knows his days might be numbered.
I would classify Bad Day At Black Rock as an Anti-Western. At one point Macreedy observes, “I thought the Old West was all about hospitality,” for in Black Rock we don’t get the idealized West of Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Those who stayed behind after the frontier closed condemned themselves to existing as walking ghosts of a bygone era. Resentful of being trapped in the past did something to their souls. Eerie silences and desolate landscapes reinforce the theme.
Knowing his survival depends on recruiting allies, Macreedy appeals to the town’s moral sense to redeem their community. Tracy’s quiet strength gave them the confidence to stand up to the reign of terror.
During the mid Fifties the United States was coming out of a similar predicament. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin launched his own reign of terror by accusing countless Americans of being disloyal, scaring people into conformity and fearful of defending their first amendment rights. The Blacklist destroyed many lives and careers, implying true Americans never questioned anything and blindly followed demagogues. The subtext of the McCarthy era: Some people belong here and some do not. Eventually McCarthy’s divisive tactics caught up with him; brave people came to their senses.
That’s the simple and powerful message of Bad Day At Black Rock: Have the courage of your conventions and stand up for your beliefs. Taking action can be difficult, especially with the possible repercussions of mental and physical violence. As the town doctor reflected:
Four years ago something terrible happened here. We did nothing about it, nothing. The whole town fell into a sort of settled melancholy and all the people in it closed their eyes, and held their tongues, and… failed the test with a whimper. And now something terrible’s going to happen again — and in a way we’re lucky, because we’ve been given a second chance.