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Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

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“You look like you need a hand.”

That’s a heck of a line that says so much in a movie where the hero only has one good arm and not a friend in sight while finding himself stuck in a male dominated hole in the wall town full of dubious characters with murder on their minds. Murder has a lot to do with Sleuthathon which is being hosted by Movies Silently.

Bad Day at Honda was a short story written by Howard Breslin and first published in a 1947 issue of The American Magazine. Transformed into an Oscar nominated screenplay credited to Millard Kaufman and Paddy Chayefsky, the film would ultimately be released by MGM Studios in 1955 with John Sturges directing.

The opening score from Andre Previn grabs your attention immediately in this Cinemascope production as a train moves across the screen against a desert location. Stopping in what appears to be the middle of nowhere a man clad in black is seen exiting the train to the surprise of a nosy railway station employee. No one ever seems to get off at Black Rock. The man in black is none other than acting legend Spencer Tracy in his 5th Oscar nominated performance. The town is nothing more than a few crumbling buildings with modern day cowboys lazing around played memorably by the likes of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. As Tracy moves towards the hotel, all eyes are on him. Not exactly feeling welcomed as a hotel customer Tracy secures a room where upon the first of our threatening characters played by Marvin moves in to see if Tracy has “got any iron in his blood.” In the first of many outstanding scenes , Marvin gets nowhere while fencing with Tracy. Time for Borgnine to call in Robert Ryan who shared above the title billing with Tracy.

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Tracy makes it known he wants to rent a vehicle to drive out to Adobe Flat. This doesn’t sit well with anyone and when Tracy mentions a man named Komoko to the town sheriff (Dean Jagger) who has seen better days he gets no help and little information. Something just isn’t sitting right with our mysterious visitor. After sparring with Ryan and getting a vehicle from the only female in the cast played by Anne Francis, Tracy makes it to Adobe Flat and finds the charred ruins of a farm house and what appears to be a grave.

From here we the viewer can pretty much figure out for ourselves what happened but when you have a cast that can count 8 Academy Awards among them it’s all about the fun in getting to the conclusion. It turns out that Komoko was a Japanese immigrant who has settled in the area and with the outbreak of WW2 he’s an automatic target for a town full of rough edged bullies. It’s the irony of why Tracy seeks him out that justifies his search for the truth. The fencing between Tracy and Ryan continues to reach a fever pitch and when Borgnine attempts to corner Tracy we get fireworks. Slowly joining Tracy’s camp is one of the screen’s great “needlers” in Walter Brennan as the town Doc and Jagger’s sheriff just might be looking for redemption and his self respect.

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“Caught in a Crossfire of Emotion From Which There Is No Escape!” So says the trailer for this film from director John Sturges. Here is a guy who knew how to handle male dominated films with some already established icons and many who were well on their way. Sturges had already directed Tracy in The People Against O’Hara and would go on to do The Old Man and The Seas as well. He would also bring us Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. An outstanding list to be sure. Sturges’ Black Rock would lose the directing Oscar to Delbert Mann for Marty.

It was during the filming at Lone Pine, California that Ernest Borgnine was approached and interviewed for his career making turn in Marty. Ernie would win the Oscar in this same year that Tracy would be nominated for Black Rock. Though Tracy would not win the Oscar he was awarded Best Actor at Cannes. Lee Marvin was well on his way to becoming the legendary tough guy both on and off screen with acting chops to match securing his place in cinema history. Flashy Walter Brennan and under appreciated Dean Jagger add great support to Tracy and Ryan throughout the films brief 82 minute running time. Then there is our main opposition to Tracy played by Robert Ryan. I have to admit that I never liked Ryan while growing up as I mainly knew him from The Dirty Dozen. Little did I know that he would become one of my favorite actors due to my fondness for Noir thrillers.

Black Rock might be the best male dominated film of the decade and one that gets better with each viewing. It should be required viewing for acting classes worldwide. With Ryan, Marvin, Jagger, Borgnine and Brennan in the cast that should come as no surprise. Oh and let’s not forget about a man that just might be the greatest actor Hollywood ever produced, Mr. Spencer Tracy.

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23 Comments »

  1. I love this move. In fact, I loved from the moment I first saw it on TV back when I was a kid. I didn’t get all its complexity and social commentary then but its power was unmistakable.

    Tracy is just great, all fire, indignation and mystery – I think it’s one of his best roles. And Sturges directs with the intensity of a man possessed. His command of the wide screen is masterful and the pace is perfect. As much as it’s a commentary on intolerance and guilt, it’s also a examination of the way the west and the frontier narrowed and turned in on itself. And all this in less than an hour and a half.

    Oh, and it’s got one of the best lines in a movie ever:
    You’re not only wrong. You’re wrong at the top of your voice.

      • Good man. This movie ought to be required viewing for any self-respecting movie fan.

        I also meant to add in my original comment that it’s another piece of evidence backing up my theory that Sturges was actually at his best when making tight and lean movies.

  2. One of the great screenplays, isn’t it? This is a legacy movie, one that my late father introduced me to early on. The talent involved is legendary. I once saw it in a theatre and there’s nothing like watching One-arm McCready putting a beat down on Borgnine on the big screen.

    I really enjoyed your Sleuthathon contribution.

  3. Thanks for the insightful review! The mid-century was a golden age for male-themed movies. I recently discovered Robert Ryan (that is to say, I realized that all the parts I had liked had been played by the same guy!) and have been happily watching his available films.
    Thanks so much for joining in the Sleuthathon!

  4. great post on a great movie, one that I’d name when making the case (not to you, we agree on this) that yes, Spencer was the best, at very least in top 2 or 3 actors ever. You just feel the menace right off the bat, the whole thing is a nice mix of atmosphere and powerful acting.

  5. For once I’m willing to overlook the lack of females as the boys in this are just so darn good! I think this is one of my favourite Spencer Tracy roles. One of the aspects of this movie that I’d forgotten about – and I’m grateful for you reminding me of – is the wonderful dialogue. When I think that ‘they just don’t make ’em like they used to’, it’s inevitably the screenplay that’s the source of my disappointment.

  6. I agree that this movie gets better with each viewing. The first time I saw it, I thought “Meh”, but I’ve liked it better every time since.

    It also took me quite a while, during the first viewing, to notice that Spencer Tracy had only one good arm! That, to me, shows Tracy’s cleverness – a person who really does have one good arm would not draw attention to it.

    • Supposedly they put the one arm into the script to keep Tracy the “actor” interested as he was known to get cold feet before filming started. They even told him Alan Ladd was ready to go f he passed.

  7. Great thoughts on a great movie. “It should be required viewing for acting classes worldwide.” You’re right, all the characters play it beautifully. As a railfan, I should point out that it is also a treat to see the Southern Pacific locomotive in its classic Black Widow paint scheme. Thanks for sharing with us all.

  8. You just have to rave about this film. Perfect in every way. And a mention for Walter Brennan and Dean Jagger. Fabulous cast altogether.

  9. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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