For the first film of the Twenties (and our 375th overall!), Kevin selected a 65-year-old classic, John Sturges’ 1955 un-Western Bad Day at Black Rock.  OK, so I’m not really sure that “un-Western” is a true film genre, but the best descriptions of the film seem to fail to adequately describe it.  People seem to be stuck on calling it a thriller (?!?) or film noir, which is perhaps a bit closer to the mark.  So, if you took a Western, set it shortly after the end of WWII instead of in the old west, and run it through a meat grinder with a noir flick, then maybe Bad Day at Black Rock is what you get.  So what’s it all about, anyway?

Coming for dinner?  I’m staying the night!

One morning, for the first time in four years, the Streamliner stops as it passes through Black Rock, a small ranching town (Main Street comprises some 10 buildings, tops) in the American west.  Off the Streamliner comes John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), an older gentleman who only has the use of one arm.  The residents of Black Rock are standoffish to the stranger, but things take a turn for the worse when Macreedy begins asking about the whereabouts of a farmer by the name of Komoko.

The Man Who Snogged Liberty Valance

The residents of the town immediately begin to work to make Macreedy feel quite unwelcome, led by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his lackeys Hector David (Lee Marvin) and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), who are keen to find out exactly what Macreedy wants with Komoko, whom they say was rounded up by the government shortly after the start of the war and sent off to one of the internment centers for Japanese-Americans.  (Interestingly, a likely destination for Komoko would have been Manzanar, which was located in the shadows of Mt. Whitney only a few miles away from Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, where Bad Day at Black Rock – as well as many other Westerns – was filmed.)

Robby, I must have a new dress, right away!

Macreedy points out that he has contacted the internment camps and gotten no record of Komoko, and with even the Sheriff unwilling to help out, he rents a jeep from Liz (Anne Francis) to go out to Adobe Flats where Komoko was last known to have lived.  There he finds a burnt out homestead with a deep, but functioning well, and a patch of wildflowers that particularly interests him.  On his way back from Adobe Flats, Trimble runs him off the road into an arroyo, as the intimidation from the townies escalates.

Well, it ain’t for Algernon, that’s what I’ll tell you

With no way out of the remote town until the next Streamliner the next day, Macreedy confronts Reno Smith and tells him that he suspects that the small patch of flowers must be from a shallow grave, but that it must have been that of an animal as there was no headstone.  And if Macreedy wanted to have any chance to get out of town clean, that was definitely the wrong move.  Only the local doctor (and undertaker, played by Walter Brennen) takes up his cause, ultimately offering to let Macreedy bolt town in his hearse before Smith’s gang kills him.  Unfortunately, Hector has already cut the engine wires, and the doctor tells Macreedy that he’s only got until dark, as the crew will wait until then so they don’t have to see each other’s faces when they do the deed.

Well, you put him on a boat and he is!

So for the time being, it’s just harassment, and let me tell you, it’s really satisfying when the one-armed Macreedy beats the crap out of Trimble at the local restaurant, which serves chili and beans.  That’s it, just chili and beans.  (Sorry, chili without beans doesn’t count as a separate menu item.)  With the local telephone exchange unavailable as it is under the control of hotel manager Pete (Liz’s brother, and one of the conspirators) Macreedy has tried to telegram the state police, only for the telegram operator to instead deliver the message to Smith, so he is good and trapped.  Macreedy reveals that he never came to investigate Komoko’s disappearance as everybody suspects, but because Komoko’s son had been awarded a posthumous medal for saving his commander Macreedy’s life during the fighting in Italy, and Macreedy was simply trying to deliver the medal to the man’s father.

With the help of the doctor, the now un-deputized Sheriff (if Smith says you’re fired, well, you’re fired) and Pete, who is having second thoughts about his role in Reno Smith’s now-revealed murder of Komoko, a plan is hatched to have Liz secret Macreedy out of town in her jeep before the gang gets to him.  It’s a decent plan, except for the fact that Liz remains in cahoots with the conspirators and drives Macreedy into a Reno Smith ambush.  And Reno isn’t particularly interested in leaving any witnesses, so he takes care of Liz right off the bat.  Macreedy shelters behind the jeep and finding a bottle on the ground, cuts the jeep’s fuel line and fashions a Molotov cocktail, plugging it with his tie, and with a good throw, shatters it on a boulder right next to Smith, lighting him on fire but good.

Macreedy kicks out the fire before Smith is killed, bringing him back to Black Rock to face justice, and the next morning, at the doctor’s request he leaves the medal with the remaining citizens to help with the healing of the town.  As the Streamliner stops, the conductor notes that it’s the first time the Streamliner has stopped in Black Rock in four years, and he is corrected.  It’s the second.  The End.

It’s a great story.  A man, wallowing in self-pity, tries to do one small thing for the family of the man who saved his life, gets wrapped up in the aftermath of a terrible crime, and through finding his strength to fight back gives the innocent who nonetheless weakly looked the other way a chance at some belated redemption.  If you can’t get behind this film, there’s something wrong with you.

I do love the story about how Spencer Tracy was thinking about backing out of the film as he dealt with alcoholism (the character had even been changed to a handicapped man in an attempt to snare Tracy, as it was thought nobody could turn down the chance to play such a character) and the producers simply said, “Hey, that’s OK, we’ve sent the script to Alan Ladd and he’s really interested”.  (Narrator: they hadn’t actually given the script to Alan Ladd.)  Tracy would win Best Actor at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, so it was probably worth sticking with the film in the end.