Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy and Small-Town Bigotry

Review: Bad Day at Black Rock: Japanese-Americans and Small-Town Bigotry

In its theatrical cut, Bad Day at Black Rock opens furiously, charging forward with the momentum of a freight train as the credits roll and Andre Previn’s score thrashes in the film’s most manic moment.

From thenceforward, its greatest strength is restraint. The whole town cowers around watching the train arrive with a mysterious one-arm man named Macreedy aboard. If the mysterious out-of-towner isn’t enough, it might also be the fact they haven’t had a visitor for well-nigh four years. This is big news but they aren’t looking to be neighborly. The local observation from the train conductor is telling:

“Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

“I’ll only be here 24 hours.”

“In a place like this, that can be a lifetime.”

The opening minutes not only set up our character but this impeccable environment for accentuating the underlying unfriendliness. The wide-open spaces of Lone Pine, CA are as much about the vast planes created between people as it merely breathtaking landscape. Because it’s gloriously austere, and it’s completely evident we really are off the beaten track.

Spencer Tracy might seem an odd choice, given the traits of his character; he seems too old and overweight to be a recently discharged veteran of WWII, especially since the year is 1945. And he’s hardly a western hero or an action star in the commonly accepted sense. A film like this would normally call for a hybrid between Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, or Clint Eastwood.

It borrows from westerns and noir, but I hesitate to label it as either. Because it has near revisionist outcomes and a palette more akin to large-scale epics than B-level entertainment. There’s really nothing else I can think of with such a fascinating and simultaneously confounding pedigree.

Macreedy is intent on visiting Adobe Flat, but he seems like a genial fellow. It’s everyone else who loiter around menacingly. They’re either outright brusque like, the local hotel clerk, or pushy folks who ask him straightforward-like what he wants around their town.

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In certain terms, Black Rock is the epitome of rural America — with a sinister twist. It’s smaller than small. Everyone knows the business of everyone else. But these folks are about as tight-lipped and inhospitable as anyone ever in the history of humanity when it comes to outsiders. What’s more, they have little reason to be unless they have something to hide. Of course, they must be covering some secret, but we don’t know quite what it is. There we have our movie.

The beauty of the story is how it plays close to the vest on both accounts. Because Macreedy seems to be in no hurry to broadcast his news all around. Simply the fact he has come to town at all seems like enough. He finally does let his business come out talking to the local sheriff (Dean Jagger), another very gracious fellow in line with all the others. Macreedy is there to see a man named Komoko. The name is a tip-off for some. He is Japanese and we are sitting on the tail-end of WWII.

It recalls the quote always attributed to Hitchcock: “The thrill is not in the bang but the anticipation of it.” John Sturges, while known for action films, does such a measured job of stretching out of the tension of this picture. It gets to this unbearable high deserving some sort of release.

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One could say it happens in the diner. Spencer Tracy is working on a bowl of chili, only to get needled by Ernest Borgnine. First it’s a squabble over a chair, then it’s a bottle of ketchup being poured into a bowl of chili. It’s a maddening scene of belittling, but Spencer Tracy takes everything in stride with the finest brand of mild amusement. Everything slides off his back. The following interchange is representative:

“You’re a yellow-belly Jap lover, am I right or wrong?” – Coley Tremble
“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” – Macreedy

Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin are lounging around to watch the show. Up until this point Macreedy has kept his cool and one might say he walks out as calmly as he came in, but he also exerts himself like he has yet to do. It’s a cathartic moment and as an audience, it gives us an unalienable belief in our hero. We wanted to believe he could hold his own implacably and he can. But the forces against him are nevertheless stifling.

We get the final piece of vital information. Macreedy came to town because of Joe Komoko, who died in Italy saving the life of his brother-in-arms. Forever in his debt, he thought the least he could do was pass on a medal and his condolences. It’s gratifying to have it spelled out, but the bottom line is still the same. Tracy is all but trapped without any outside assistance.

His only chance is some inside help — someone who is willing to do something right for a change, instead of turning a blind eye. The closest he finds is in the local doctor/undertaker (Walter Brennan) who gives his best half-hearted attempt to help the stranger.

Meanwhile, the town’s poor excuse for a sheriff (Dean Jagger), who spends his days nursing the bottle and his nights sleeping in his own jail cell, finally feels compelled to take a stand. His behavior strips him of his badge. The final reluctant players are the tight-lipped hotel clerk and his young sister (Anne Francis), who both aid Macreedy begrudgingly. In a town like this, each action seems nearly monumental. One questions if it is enough.

I challenge anyone to stack the movie up against most any cast of the 1950s, especially because this is not some grandiose epic. This film clocks in at a mere 81 minutes of film, but it has more than enough to go around. Robert Ryan, in particular, is a crucial piece. He always gets these roles as militant bigots and in one sense you feel bad for him and in the other, he’s so convincing at it you can understand why.

His blatant malevolence briefly hidden under a thin exterior is the perfect foil for Tracy to bounce off of. Because they share conversation civilly enough, but it all draws out how diametrically opposed they are. Macreedy got it in Italy. Smith tried enlisting straight after Pearl Harbor but wasn’t accepted.

We come to understand his view of humanity is cut-and-dry. Komoko was a lousy Jap farmer. Pearl Harbor and Corregidor. They’re all the same. There’s no such thing as a loyal Japanese-American. Its this type of rhetoric we must immediately be wary of. For it is pernicious.

At his first chance, Macreedy decides he should get out of town since he’s hit a dead-en, attempting to notify the state police on his way out. He bumps into another bystander, the squeamish telegraph officer Hastings, who excuses himself by saying, “I’m just a good neighbor.”

Of course, as Macreedy suspects, his definition only stretches to those who share his skin tone. He is yet another problem character. Because he has no guts and if I indict him then I am indicting myself as well. There is no place for wishy-washiness with such issues.

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Bad Day at Black Rock, personally, is an important film for me because, like Daisy Kenyon or The Steel Helmet, it stands as a record of Japanese-Americans place in a polarized society. There was injustice done, and it’s not something we should try and forget. The acknowledgment alone is a victory and yet another important record in the annals of visual history.

However, getting beyond, this thriller is ultimately about a hero who is doing his best to honor another man — of course, he happens to be Japanese-American — but most importantly he is given the dignity and the respect of a human being. Because there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friends. Even if we never see Motoko, or his deceased son in person, their presence over the film is still felt, and it’s meaningful for me. The implications are that he matters as not merely an innocent citizen but a sacrificial hero for the sake of our country.

It manages to be universal. Because Black Rock could be the stand-in for any such towns. In this particular instance, it’s about a Japanese man. But in other stories, he could be any marginalized individual. The hateful frenzy of The Red Scare is too fresh to disregard any type of allegory in that context.

This type of bigotry and incensed racial (or political) hatred is not a thing of the past. It disadvantages many types of people by conveniently terming them “other” from the accepted subset of society.

What always fascinates me in history and in the stories we excavate is finding the people who faced this abhorrent reality and willingly pushed against it. Still, others initially accept it with apathy. It’s the path of least resistance. However, even they are forced to make a stand, lest they continually bury their conscience and grow miserable.

Bad Day at Bad Rock is about precisely these types of people, and it takes all sorts. So the beauty of it is that we can enjoy its utter intensity and the mystery at its core. It keeps its secrets close and only divulges them at opportune moments. The dialogue too is sparse and measured.

But seething under the surface is a commentary framed by a none too flattering portrait of America. It stands as a testament to fear leading to hate and hate leading to violence. There’s this sense of full-blown conspiracy and holding onto each other’s secrets because we’re all implicated.

If we are to break the chain, it’s imperative to band together in opposition and bring all those dirty secrets into the light. The greatest gift Spencer Tracy gives to this picture is not brawn but the unwavering sense of integrity — in his acting and in that iconic face of his. In a world of shady two-timers, his candor is something we can trust.

4/5 Stars

3 thoughts on “Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy and Small-Town Bigotry

  1. Superb review of a great film. Bravo. I’ve got it lined up for a piece on my blog as well, having just re-watched it, in Blu-Ray. First saw it on “NBC Saturday Night At The Movies” more than 50 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Classics & More on DVD (Nov. 19, 2019) | Online Film Critics Society

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