Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Directed by John Sturges

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In Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy plays John Macreedy, a fish out of water in an almost unbelievably tiny town somewhere in the American southwest.  His arrival itself threatens the insular town, and even when he realizes his life is at risk he maintains his cool, fighting fire with long walks and meditation.

The story takes place very soon after the end of World War II, and Macreedy (despite being played by the 54 year old Tracy) is a military veteran who lost his left arm in the war.  It’s not just the missing limb that makes Macreedy stands out.  He speaks in a measured manner if at all while the locals grunt, rant and scream.  He wears a clean black suit like he’s the private detective out of a Raymond Chandler novel, which he might as well be, while those who harass him wear lighter shades.  Macreedy sticks out like a sore thumb, and he asks around for an old friend, a Japanese man named Komoko.

It’s not clear right away what Macreedy wants with Komoko or what the locals are hiding, but we know something happened to the man, and the locals are responsible.  They leer at Macreedy, seemingly holding him in disdain if only because he’s an outsider.  It doesn’t matter that he’s an American and a former soldier because the locals know he might unearth their dirty little secret.

So the townsfolk, led by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), killed Komoko following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Because he was Japanese he was seen as an enemy, and it didn’t help matters that Komoko proved to be a successful farmer who made the best out of land deemed barren.  The locals killed Komoko out of some warped sense of patriotism, but it’s easy to see that they were threatened on a more personal level.

Macreedy heard that Komoko lived in this town, and he wants to tell him that his son, who served with him in the war, saved his life.  It’s not until about halfway into the film that Macreedy learns that Komoko is dead and a little while later until he learns why.

The first half of the film concerns the absurdly hostile treatment Macreedy gets.  Because we don’t know that the town is hiding anything (even though it’s implied), we see Macreedy’s mistreatment as a result of his ‘otherness.’  The dynamic between our hero and the strange town is similar to what you see in Deliverance or Steven Spielberg’s Duel.  There’s even a heightened version of this in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.

Macreedy is faced with people who refuse him basic pleasantries and services or hide away in the shadows and warn him to get out of town.  The guy who works at the motel refuses to give Macreedy a room which makes you wonder how the hell he makes his money.  Is every visitor treated with such apprehension and vitriol?

Macreedy mostly just reacts to the town over the first half of the film.  He arrives on a train which hadn’t stopped here in over four years, and he must wait until the train arrives the following day to leave.  He’s stuck, and pretty quickly he realizes this will become a fight for his survival.

Still Macreedy remains calm.  The townsfolk grow more alarming and malicious, and then at one point a friendly doctor tells him up front, yeah you’re gonna die.  There’s no sugar coating what the locals want of him, and it’s kind of amusing to see the story just clear the way and state the obvious, particularly as Macreedy continues to consider everything in a measured way, like being told at a diner that they’re out of coke and only have pepsi.

It’s not until one particularly hot-headed man, played by Ernest Borgnine in a frustratingly effective way, pushes Macreedy around that he finally snaps, beating up the man and sending a message.

Macreedy is something of a John Wick, but he delivers the biggest blows with his words.  He has the moral advantage throughout the film, and he’s just the perfect hero.  When he learns what happened to Komoko he becomes an angel of vengeance, reluctant to use violence but certainly willing to when it helps make a point.

Macreedy has his moment with everyone in town.  He calls them on their bullsh*t, and in one memorable scene he confronts a young man who considered himself helpless in all of this.

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So Macreedy is just the best.  He’s calm, eloquent and apparently a capable MMA fighter.  In the end he manages to escape town but not before throwing a molotov cocktail at Reno Smith, the unofficial leader of the gang, when Smith had tried to gun Macreedy down after already shooting dead one of the locals complicit in Macreedy’s escape.

This is a short, pulpy, weird movie.  It’s layered with plenty of subtext, including racial fear, extreme patriotism, the romantic nature of the west, the film noir tropes of a private eye and a femme fatale as well as the homogeneity in a community within the supposed melting pot of America.

And when you take a step back, Macreedy is hardly a character in all of this.  He’s the audience surrogate, an outsider like we are to this strange little world.  Macreedy is defined to some degree (a maimed WW2 veteran), but he’s really just a perfect person which makes him harder to relate to.  He’s old and wise, perfectly dressed, capable in a fistfight and yet reluctant to stoop to that level, and finally he’s here as part of an honorable, selfless mission.

So Macreedy is the spotlight shone onto this backward little town.  He’s a radar looking for stains on America, those dark little pockets hidden in the wide open lands of the west.

Is Bad Day at Black Rock meant to suggest the groupthink of this small town is reflective of something broader in postwar America?  It seems to me like Macreedy’s indictment of the town serves to remind us all that America did imprison American citizens after the Pearl Harbor attack.  It’s we who did that, our beautiful America who behaved so aggressively out of fear.

The point of the movie would seem to be that America isn’t always so great when you pull the layers back.  It’s also important that this be a story set in the wide open west, a landsape typically romanticized in movies and literature, a place where you can start your own little homestead or empire, a place free for the taking.  In this way the American west symbolizes the American Dream, the hope and determination that comes with the intention to make something of yourself.  You can be whoever you want to be, and the folks of Black Rock are criminals.  They are shells of what they could be, in some ways relics of older ways of thinking.  Most of what they symbolize is what we hope our culture grows out of over time.  They are hot-headed, prone to violence, racist and full of misplaced pride, the type that doesn’t promote your own cause but just hold down someone else’s.

Up Next: Point Blank (1967), The Cooler (2003), Secret Honor (1984)

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