What's so good about Bad Day at Black Rock?
Black Rock - the town
1 hr 21 mins - Crime, Drama, Mystery, Western - 1955 - 7.8 stars
Director: John Sturgis
Spencer Tracy - John J. Macreedy
Robert Ryan - Reno Smith
Anne Francis - Liz Wirth
Dean Jagger - Sheriff Tim Horn
Walter Brennan - Doc Velie
John Ericson - Pete Wirth
Ernest Borgnine - Coley Trimble
Lee Marvin - Hector David
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
A train is seen speeding through the desert of Arizona to a small town in the middle of nowhere and it stops which draws the unusual attention of the population. Why the attention? Because the train hasn’t stopped there in 4 years. A solitary man steps off the train to the curiosity and alarm of the townsfolks. His name is John J. Macreedy (played by Spencer Tracy) and he has lost the use of his left arm. He makes his way to the hotel where he is informed that there is no vacancy. By all appearances there is nothing but vacancies so Macreedy grabs a key from the attendant and signs himself into the register. In a small town where nothing happens he is the center of attention and the people don’t seem to want him there. He goes upstairs to the wash room to freshen up a bit then into his self-selected room only to find Hector (played by Lee Marvin) who has just been in the lobby, lying on the bed claiming the room was his and being generally confrontational. Macreedy acquiesces and chooses a different room.
A little later Macreedy visits the sheriff. He begins to reveal a little of his purpose for being there. He states that he is looking for a man named Komoko who lives nearby at a place called Adobe Flat. The sheriff acts nervous but can’t help him so he departs. Next he meets Reno Smith (played by Robert Ryan). Smith apologizes for the strange and confrontational way people have been treating him. Smith’s friendly demeanor seems to put a brighter face on the town. Macreedy rents a car from Liz (played by Ann Francis), who appears to be the only woman in town. To her it was an easy way to make a little money, but after Macreedy leaves, Smith confronts her asking if she knew where Macreedy wanted to go, but then telling her that he was heading for Adobe Flat! Next Smith, who by now we realize is the town ringleader, talks to a man named Coley (played by Ernest Borgnine). Coley is the most eager man in town to fight against Macreedy. Smith suggests to him that perhaps Macreedy should somehow disappear. Coley is only too eager to make that happen. He sets out after Macreedy at Adobe Flat. In the meantime Macreedy has arrived there and finds a ruined burned out dwelling with a well and wild flowers which he infers it is a grave.
On the way back to town Macreedy is chased by Coley and is run off the road, but is otherwise unharmed. Once back in town Macreedy speaks again to Smith and the conversation makes Smith angry. Smith reveals his anti-Japanese sentiment. We learn what really happened; how several men got drunk one night and killed Komoko all because of Pearl Harbor. From that night onward the town has been non edge because of their guilt.
At this point Macreedy can’t get out of town. He’s trapped, he knows it, and he knows that the men in the town intend to kill him that night.
He goes to a diner to have lunch and Coley meets him there. Smith and Hector are also there, but Coley provokes Macreedy into fighting. In what is arguably the most dramatic scene in the movie Macreedy and Coley fight. Though Macreedy is one-armed, Coley is no match for him, because Macreedy knows karate. It is a humiliating defeat for Coley and an impressive show to the other men who now realize that this crippled man, Macreedy, is a force to be reckoned with, much greater than they had estimated.
Macreedy explains to Doc Velie the reason for his visit. In the war his life had been saved by a man named Komoko who had sacrificed his own life in saving Macreedy’s. He has earned a medal for that and Macreedy was bringing it to Komoko’s father.
An arrangement is made that night and the doctor and hotel desk attendant arrange to have Liz take Macreedy out of town, but she betrays him and drives him into a trap where Smith is awaiting. Smith then calls her over to himself and shoots her – he could not afford to have witnesses. Macreedy is temporarily safe behind the car. He takes a glass bottle that happened to be there and opened up the fuel line under the car to pour gasoline into it. He then stuffed his handkerchief into the bottle making a Molotov cocktail. He lit the handkerchief on fire and hurled it at Smith. It was a perfect throw and Smith’s clothes ignited. Macreedy then went to rescue Smith and take him, tied up, back to town.
In the closing scenes the authorities are in town taken the men into custody. The doc asks for the medal for the town as a sort of symbol of a new beginning. He gets it and Macreedy boards the train to ride off.
Preparing to Fight
This is a study in prejudice, guilt and survival. The film introduces these themes to us in stages and that introduction is very slow and strangely mysterious. When Macreedy arrives and steps off the train the whole town acts weirdly. It’s easy to imagine a small close-knit community being suspicious of strangers, but in this case they take their behaviors to an extreme. I’m sure that not three minutes into his stay he was suspecting that something was amiss. It’s one thing for townsfolk to glance at him sideways and ask a lot of questions, but it’s another thing entirely to deny him a room at the hotel which clearly has numerous vacancies. There’s no racial prejudice here between Macreedy and the townsfolk. In so far as he knows they hate him just because he’s from out of town. And here he must become suspicious that they are hiding something and that something is big, big enough to harass a stranger who, as he stated early on is, only there for a day.
But why would the town arouse his suspicions? If he is only there for a day let him leave in peace tomorrow rather than allowing their actions to prick his curiosity. The fact of the matter is that whatever happened has caused a shroud of guilt to descend upon everyone and it seeps out through their word and deeds. The townsfolk don’t realize it, but they are digging their own graves. Here is a look at what a prison guilt can be.
They have assessed Macreedy and determined that he is an older, crippled man, physically unable to withstand their provocations, but they have grossly misjudged. What they don’t know can and will hurt them. They don’t know why he’s there and they don’t know his skill and strength.
Macreedy is a patient man and he’s a focused man. He is on a mission and surely he can get done what he needs to do then leave without resorting to retaliatory measures. But this just does not prove to be the case. The needling of the townsfolk pushes him to a breaking point and this is seen in the dramatic fight scene in the diner. The townsfolk, and indeed we the audience, see this escalation as the end of Macreedy. But that was far from what happened. This is the most memorable scene in the movie, yet it is not the climax. In this scene we all learn that the crippled older man has skill beyond what we believed of him and this is why it’s memorable. We the audience are pulling for the gentle, patient Macreedy, but we fear the outcome of this fight because we, and the townsfolk too, believe him to be the underdog. What an exciting revelation to find out that he is not the underdog as had be perceived. The movie tricks us into believing one way – old, crippled. Perhaps I should emphasize the verb “believing”, but what the movie does is this; it turns our beliefs about Macreedy totally askew, but with a positive outcome. That’s why this scene is the highlight of the movie.
The climax comes as Smith has Macreedy trapped behind his car. But at this time we have come to believe that Macreedy is a clever survivor. How he will get out of this jam we don’t know, but we somehow believe that he will. Indeed he does and he uses his wits and a good arm – no pun intended - in throwing that Molotov cocktail. After all it’s hard to throw anything in the dark with such accuracy. This is Macreedy showing a guilty town something about survival. The better sorts in town will see him as a hearo and a teacher, as can be seen by their request to keep the medal. That medal will be a token to help them begin to rebuild themselves into what they ought to be. This puts Macreedy into a savior type role always a very attractive motif for a movie audience. As Macreedy boards the train to depart he has in one day, singlehandedly – again no pun intended – cleaned up that town. Mission accomplished.
The racial prejudice in that town is the foundation of the whole plot a topic which in the mid-1950s was quite taboo. This prejudice had festered into murderous hatred sparked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Smith resented the attack and he, along with some of his friends, Coley and Hector got drunk one night, drove out to Adobe Flat and killed the man who lived there, a man originally from Japan named Komoko. This happened to be the man that Macreedy had come to visit. Note the sickening irony in why Macreedy came to visit him, because his son gave his life defending America. His son died defending the land that Smith loved and Smith killed his father. This crime was terrible and additionally it was stupid because it was at cross purposes to what Smith believed about his own country. The cover up and guilt crippled the whole town. This is why Dr. Velie’s request to keep the medal that would have gone to Komoko was so important. That medal would serve to restore the character and dignity of the remaining townsfolk.
The dramatic fight scene in the diner makes an equally dramatic point. The method that Macreedy uses to fight against Coley is karate – a Japanese martial art. Coley is humiliatingly defeated by a fighting style that comes from the culture of the man he helped to kill. Let me remind you that in most westerns fighting was done by shoot outs or at least fisticuffs. This movie is from 1955 long before the popularity of martial arts films. So once again the cultural aspects of the war are brought into the story of America as a melting pot.
Among the good guys is Dr. Velie, but he, like the sheriff, is powerless to do anything. The sheriff drinks to cope. The doctor thinks of ways to change things especially when Macreedy comes to town. He ends up being a big help to Macreedy by trying to get him out of town, but his deep internal anger comes out in one scene where he repeatedly uses the emphatic present tense, commenting on life in that town and his interactions with the strangers that do come to town, “First I sell them a piece of land; do they farm it? They do not… they dig of gold…is it gold? It is not. Do they quit? They do not… I’m consumed with apathy”. Dr. Velie is not only the physician; he’s also the town undertaker (and veterinarian).