John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock is a detective story wrapped up in a Western setting. All the elements for a Western are present including the stranger coming into town full of men (only one woman in the picture), noticing some problems in the town, and fixing the problems with very little help. But instead of the hero taking the position of sheriff to solve the town ills, he is more of a private eye, figuring out exactly what happened by asking tough questions, much to the town’s anger.
Spencer Tracy plays John J. Macreedy, a man from California that takes a train to the small town of Black Rock in 1945, causing quite a stir. No one has stopped at Black Rock in years. The stranger looks for a hotel room and a Japanese farmer named Komoko who has seemingly disappeared. Macreedy is not welcomed kindly. Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine play town ‘bullies’ that follow Macreedy around and later threaten his life. Everyone in town knows the secret behind Komoko’s disappearance, but no one is willing to talk about it.
Sturges uses widescreen in a fascinating manner by keeping the camera at a distance and simply observing the action. There is never a close-up in the film because he doesn’t want to convey false emotions. That doesn’t mean that the intentions of the film are subtle. It’s obvious that Bad Day at Black Rock is condemning the racist attitudes towards the Japanese during the World War II era and, more importantly, the attitude of those who were not racist, but did not stand up for what was right. The power of the film is in the way it conveys these messages.
We do not need to be reminded that racism is wrong, so there are no monologue speeches by Macreedy explaining how wrong it is. His sharp criticism is for those who seem apathetic and unwilling to stand up for what is right. We also don’t need the emotions of this tense situation pounding us over the head, so Sturges keeps the camera at a distance and uses very little music. There is only one scene that overplays the situation and that is a car chase. It’s also the only scene that has aged poorly because it tried for too much special effects-wise. The makers of this film knew that the story was enough to keep the audience interested and wisely chose to tell it in a straightforward manner.
Every performance is good, especially Spencer Tracy as the one-armed Macreedy. He’s tough, but doesn’t lose his temper. He’s passionate, but smart about how to handle every situation. Most impressively, though, is the way that he can portray a man so angry at this situation that, even as it is resolved, can’t smile. It is a terrific case-study for how a film can be powerful without calling attention to itself.
Bad Day at Black Rock isn’t a perfect film. The ending is wrapped up a little too tightly and rushed a bit, but the tension is held so well throughout that it almost doesn’t matter. The film flies by with a running time of just over 80 minutes. It is a solid piece of work that embodies the phrase, “less is more”.