Bad Day at Black Rock

This film proves out my ‘compelling film’ definition. I am checking to see what is on TCM yesterday afternoon. I had watched Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a few months ago. A crucial element for a compelling film is the acting. Bad Day has a great cast whose presence and personae drown out the names of the characters: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, Ann Francis, Dean Jagger, Lee Marvin, and John Ericson.

I sit back and gauge how much have I missed. I am interested in the confrontation between the one-armed Tracy and Borgnine. Ten minutes later, Borgnine’s following Tracy and trying to run Tracy’s Jeep off the road and, with any luck, kill him. Tracy keeps the Jeep from crashing into the desert rocks and comes back to the tiny, the incredibly tiny town. Borgnine is waiting and blames Tracy for damaging the front of his car. Tracy plays it cool and tries to pay for the damages. At this point, Tracy realizes that several townies, led by Robert Ryan, mean to never let him leave. He’s uncovered a secret about a Japanese farmer outside of town who has disappeared.

I’m hooked. Tracy goes into a diner, sits at the counter, and orders chili. Borgnine follows him and compains that Tracy is on his favorite stool. Tracy moves down one while Borgnine sits. But Borgnine doesn’t like the feel of the seat and asks Tracy to move again. Tracy starts to eat, and Borgnine pours half a bottle of ketchup in the chili. Now they’re standing. Borgnine taunts Tracy, who can only use one arm, that he’ll fight Tracy with one or both arms behind his back. Then he makes a move on Tracy, who karate chops Borgnine to the ground. Borgnine rises and is knocked down again. He rises again and is tossed out the door. He staggers back and Tracy flips to the ground.

Walter Brennan helps Tracy by giving him the keys to a hearse to get out of town. It doesn’t start. Lee Marvin steps into view and checks the engine. Some wires have been cut, he says. Tracy and Brennan know who cut them. Then Marvin proceeds to rip out another ten wires and leaves.

Robert Ryan had led his buddies to the Japanese farmer’s house and burned it down, killing him, the day after Pearl Harbor. This is Black Rock’s secret that they’re afraid Tracy will find out. Ryan reprises the role of bigot that he played in Crossfire (1947) as anti-Semitic and will be doing again in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and Executive Action (1973) as anti-Black.

The anti-racism message is strong despite not having a single Japanese or other minority group in the film. The film also digs at the apathy and non-involvement of citizens when a threat arises.

Tracy: I got a problem of my own.

Brennan: You sure have, they’re going to kill you with no hard feelings.

Tracy: And you’re going to sit there and let ’em do it.

Brennan: Don’t get waspish with me, mister.

Tracy: Oh, I’m sorry, I, uh…

Brennan: Yeah, well, I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy. Why should I mix in?

The same theme is evoked in High Noon (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954). Only, racism isn’t the target so much as McCarthyism. The bullying by Ryan, Borgnine, and Marvin reflect McCarthy-like intimidation.


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