Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

June 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Spencer Tracy received an Oscar nomination for this short, eighty minute, fairly slow and quiet film where he plays John J. Macreedy, arriving by train to a small town where the train hasn’t stopped in four years — a small town with something to hide. “What do you want?” is among the first things said to him at the station.

It’s the sort of town that would have maybe been a frontier town once, but the frontier has been conquered and now there’s a lot of sitting around to do.  Without much happening, the arrival of a stranger causes a stir.  It’s almost as though there are casual chases in the film, with characters sauntering around, sizing each other up.  Despite taking place a few months after the close of the Second World War, the film has elements of a Western. The sheriff and doctor seem like they have the potential to be decent men, but they share the same secret as the rest of the town, and having been “consumed by apathy,” they’re reduced to meek conformity unless Macreedy can prod them into action. The town is run by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his muscle comes in the form of two men, played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Between very few action sequences, the pressure begins to build again, with the Tracy character given lines like “You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” In fact, there’s quite a bit of good dialogue here, as well as impressive direction and a striking, if slightly overdone score.

I wouldn’t want to give away the end of the film, or too much more about it, except to say it’s a pleasure to watch such a carefully made film that takes its time saying what it wants to say, including subtle statements about the evils of conformity versus the dangers involved with active indivduality. Tracy is remarkable at playing a character that seems the personification of calm and intelligence.

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