Bad Day at Black Rock

Dir: John Sturges, 1955. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis. Classics.
Bad Day at Black Rock

I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.

The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.

It begins with the image of a black steam locomotive chugging through a Technicolor California desert in all its 70MM glory. A man in black gets off the train at Black Rock, a desert town at which the train has not stopped in several years, we are told. Spencer Tracy plays John Macreedy, a WW2 vet who pledges to a fallen comrade who saved his life that he will carry out his dying wish. All we know is that he’s in Black Rock for this reason.

Right from the start, though, nothing is right about Black Rock. The few townspeople who inhabit Black Rock look stupefied when Macreedy appears, as if they knew this day was coming but they don’t know what now to do. He takes their hostility toward him with an easy graceful acquiescence, but inside he is carefully assessing just what he is in the middle of. He walks into an empty hotel and asks for a room. He’s told by the James Dean lookalike kid working the front desk that they have no vacancies. Several thuggish men walk in to the hotel lobby and eye Macreedy with barely concealed hostility. Macreedy plays it cool but he’s unnerving everyone around him and his presence creates a tension so thick that the threat of violence erupting at any second seems inevitable. What’s really going on is for us to figure out. Show, don’t tell.

Macreedy doesn’t lose sight of why he came to Black Rock and, to the bafflement of its citizens, he refuses to be intimidated or to even acknowledge the message that he’s not wanted there. Instead, with his shy smile and polite manners he keeps getting in deeper, asking questions about something no one wants to talk about. He’s looking for a Japanese farmer, the father of his friend in the war who lives in Black Rock, and his questions are met with aggressive denial, condescension, and hostility from most everyone. In particular, Macreedy has to contend with having three of the meanest, surliest, nastiest bad guys of old Hollywood—Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan—on his case. Clearly something bad happened in Black Rock and no one will ever mention it again if those three have anything to say about it. Whatever it is, they’re bound by their shared complicity in the crime to make sure no one outside of Black Rock ever finds out about it. The tension between Macreedy and his adversaries reaches a fever pitch when Macreedy finally stops playing along and shows them what he’s capable of. When he drops the nice guy act and tears into them for their cowardice in protecting a murderous thug you know this is not going to end well, even if the tear down is incredibly satisfying.

From there the suspense kicks up several notches as Macreedy is forced to play detective and to fend for his life when the chances of him ever getting out of town look less and less likely. He finds that he can trust some people in Black Rock even as others double cross him to their own tragic ends. There are only a couple of scenes of real violence in Bad Day at Black Rock but their appearance after such a sustained and carefully plotted escalation of tension gives them that much more bite.

Bad Day at Black Rock could be considered a Western or a “social problem” film but more than that it’s just a superbly crafted suspense picture. The closing shot mirrors the opening, thus bringing us back to where we began after one incredibly momentous day in a town with a lot of secrets, all finally exposed. Between the performances, the writing, and the deceptive simplicity of the premise, Bad Day at Black Rock is cinematic storytelling at its finest.

_____________________________

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars: Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (Millard Kaufman).

Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Nov 11, 2009 5:45pm
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