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Directed by the acclaimed director John Sturges and written by Milliard Kaufman, Bad Day at Black Rock is a film typically attached to the thriller genre. However, due to its specific setting and omnipresent distinct ambiance it is also considered to have elements of both western and a noir movie.

Bad Day at Black Rock stands out as a perfect example of a picture that respects the classical rules of three unities, derived from a passage in Aristotle’s Poetics: space (the city of Black Rock), time (one day), action (what happened in Black Rock a few years back that its citizens are so concerned about). What’s so special about this movie is its irrefutable ability to adjust to that stiff rules and, at the same time, present a story so captivating and irresistible in its elegance, minimalism and straightforwardness. The more one watches it the more thrilling and spellbinding it becomes, with its mysteriously dark form and constantly increasing tension.

The film opens with a stranger named Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) dropping off a train at a remote Californian whistle-stop. To his unpleasant surprise, all the local town folks treat him with severe hostility and view him with much suspicion. As it is later revealed, the aren’t many people, who get off at this remote and isolated place, and the last train actually stopped there some 4 years ago. The whole town is possessed with a weird sense of mystery that Macreedy can’t quite put a finger on. They become especially wary of the man when he starts asking about a Japanese farmer named Kamoko. The overly dubious and radical locals suspect him of being an investigator and feel threatened by what he might discover during his 24-hour stay. Lead by the vicious Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the people decide to get rid of the unwanted guest under cover of the night.

John Sturges built up the suspenseful process of gradual exposure by putting an emphasis on the methodical pacing of all his characters, thus revealing the mystery behind the whole precarious cover-up. Without spoiling anything, it is crucial to mention that the film raises the issue of racial discrimination during the post-war period. In a typically western finale, as the truth finally comes out, there is a thrilling duel between Macreedy and Smith. After a clever use of his military skills, the visitor comes out ahead and is at last able to leave Black Rock by boarding the same train exactly one day after his initial arrival.

The acting presented by the mostly male cast (there is only one woman) is on a very high level. All of the characters are distinguishable from each other. Spencer Tracy gives an incredible performance as the mysterious one-handed, tough and serious man, who also knows how to fight judo-style. In the town there is the uncontested leader of the group, the thug, the bully, the helpful doctor, the drunken sheriff, the anxious hotel clerk, and his arrogant sister among others.

All in all, if you are looking for an action movie, filled with clever and engaging dialogues, well- written story and a subtle noir feel attached to it, don’t look any further and watch Bad Day at Black Rock.

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One thought on “Golden Age of Hollywood: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

  1. I agree with your praise of this film. “Bad Day at Black Rock” is a largely overlooked suspense classic.
    (Warning: Here comes a slight spoiler)
    One very ironic and intriguing aspect of the film is that despite its strong anti-racism message, it has a cast that is all one race. I initially wondered whether that was an artistic choice or a commercial one. On reflection, I think it was mostly the former, but it might have had a commercial benefit at the time by keeping it from being easily pigeonholed as an “issue” movie.

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