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Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
John J. Macreedy doesn't know it, but when he steps off the train at the jerkwater town of Black Rock, he will soon find himself the object of fear, hatred, and even a murder plot! The altruistic Macreedy came to Black Rock to hand over a posthumous military award to a local man whose son had died gallantly in the Second World War. What Macreedy couldn't know when he stepped off of that train was that the town had a shameful secret, one that must be kept at all costs.
Spencer Tracy ... John J. Macreedy
Robert Ryan ... Reno Smith
Anne Francis ... Liz Wirth
Dean Jagger ... Sheriff Tim Horn
Walter Brennan ... Doc T.R. Velie Jr.
John Ericson ... Pete Wirth
Ernest Borgnine ... Coley Trimble
Lee Marvin ... Hector David
Russell Collins ... Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher
Walter Sande ... Sam, Cafe Proprietor
Director: John Sturges
Runtime: 81 mins
Codecs: XVid / MP3
Superb little suspense movie, tightly constructed and brilliantly directed by Sturges. The film's premise is simple, but one has to admire how Sturges and his people play with the concept. It is a terrific exercise in minimalism, relying on basic storytelling techniques in order to tell the story. This is the first time I watch the movie in its original widescreen format (courtesy of the wonderful new DVD disc), and it is amazing to see how well director Sturges uses wide angels. Actually, I found odd to see such a small scale production rely so much on the visual glories of Cinemascope, but the experiment works beautifully. The cast is wonderful, with no less than five Oscar-winning actors among the great ensemble cast. However, Spencer Tracy walks away with the movie - his naturalistic style has never been better displayed. Also, kudos to Millard Kaufman's great script (it has a very interesting xenophobia subtext).
"Bad Day at Black Rock" is only a short film by present day standards (at just 81 minutes) but in that time it manages to pack in more intrigue, mystery and action than many Hollywood films of two hours or more. Expertly directed by John Sturges in breathtaking colour and CinemaScope the film holds your attention throughout its tight running time. "Bad Day at Black Rock" has an exceptionally talented supporting cast including Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Anne Francis, John Ericson, Dean Jagger and Walter Brennan who all give accomplished performances - particularly the baddies Ryan, Borgnine and Marvin.
Spencer Tracy was deservedly nominated for the Best Actor Award but unfortunately for him 1955 was a very exceptional year with so many fine performances from other actors including Ernest Borgnine in "Marty" (the winner), James Cagney in "Love Me Or Leave Me", James Dean in "East of Eden", and Frank Sinatra in "The Man With the Golden Arm". Tracy had in fact won the Best Actor Award twice before - for "Captains Courageous" in 1937 and for "Boys Town" in 1938 so his memorable screen acting had already been recognised by the Academy voters two years running.
Tracy plays the mysterious John J. MacReedy who arrives at the small Western town of Black Rock causing suspicion and concern among the local residents who are hiding a dark secret which MacReedy eventually uncovers. Robert Ryan (Reno Smith) is the chief heavy well supported by his two menacing henchmen Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble) and Lee Marvin (Hector David) who are intent on getting rid of Tracy one way or another. Insults and intimidation seem to have no effect on Tracy who is determined to carry on with his one man investigation against all the odds. With the eventual help of Anne Francis (Liz Wirth) and Walter Brennan (Doc Velie) Tracy doggedly pursues his mission through the 24 hours period of the film. When threats and violence won't stop Tracy then Ryan has to resort to attempted murder leading to the dramatic climax.
Some favourite lines:
Tracy (to Marvin): "I don't know why you're so interested but the name is MacReedy. It's all in the ledger".
Borgnine (to Tracy): "Well, if it's not MacReedy, the world's champion road hog".
Walter Brennan (to Tracy): "They're going to kill you with no hard feelings". Tracy: "And you're going to sit there and let 'em do it!".
Train Conductor: "What's all the excitement? What happened?". Tracy: "A shooting". Train Conductor: "Thought it was something. First time this train line has stopped here in four years". Tracy: "Second time!". (Last line in film).
"Bad Day at Black Rock" is a superior high class thriller that deserves to be in anyone's "Top Ten" list of all time classic films. It's certainly in mine!
This film respects the three unities :unity of place ,unity of action and unity of time .
Unity of place:everything takes place in a one-horse town,Black Rock,where an unusually inventive use of the wide screen makes the small town even more isolated,cut off from the world.When you leave Black Rock,you find a desolate landscape where only some flowers (of death?as Tracy points out)grow.
Unity of action:something happened in "Black Rock" ,something that its inhabitants are anxious that it remains in the shadow.Enter Tracy who seems to know too many things he should.Then all the inhabitants all stand together ,and their conspiracy of silence becomes threatening.What's amazing is that John Sturges (it's probably his best film,he uses Tracy in a much better way than he did in "people against o'Hara" some years before)refuses the easy way out:take for instance the only female character played by Anne Francis ;she does not act as the audience expects .Stand-out remains Robert Ryan,always excellent in one of his villains parts:funny how an actor who was known for his liberal views should have played so many racists ,anti-Semitics (this film,but also Dmytryk's "crossfire" and Wise's "against all odds").Other good performances come from Marvin and Borgnine.
Unity of time:everything happens in the space of 24 hours;first sequence :the train arrives in Black Rock,last sequence:it leaves it.
This is a modern western,which takes place just after WW2."Bad Day at Black Rock" is also,in its own special way, a war movie ,and also an anti-war one,because Tracy's life was saved by a...
Thoroughly enjoyable ,it deserves its reputation of classic.
* MGM's then president Nicholas Schenck was actively opposed to the film as he felt the storyline was subversive.
* According to director John Sturges' commentary track on the Criterion Laserdisc, this film was also filmed simultaneously in a standard 4:3 ratio version (as well as Cinemascope), because MGM executives were unsure of the wide screen version. It was never released.
* The opening shot with the train was added after preview audiences did not like the original version. The sequence was created by filming with a helicopter flying away from the train and running the film backwards. (Source - audio commentary by John Sturges on Criterion laserdisc.)
* Spencer Tracy's last completed MGM film, after two decades with the studio.
* The projectionist's records have revealed that over the years this has become one of the most frequently shown films in the screening room of The White House.
* According to one biographer of Spencer Tracy, the script did not originally call for the lead character to be a one-armed man. The producers were keen to get Tracy but didn't think he'd be interested, so they gave the character this disability with the idea that no actor can resist playing a character with a physical impairment.
* The script called for Tracy's character to light matches one-handed. Tracy had difficulty with this and convinced the director to let him use a Zippo lighter, as every veteran he ever met had one.
* Average Shot Length (ASL) = 10 seconds
* Don Siegel called 'Bad Day at Black Rock' the best screenplay he had ever read (to that point) and lobbied unsuccessfully to direct it.
* The suit that Tracy wears throughout the film was bought by him off the rack, at his insistence.