Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman. Based on the story “Bad Day at Hondo” by Howard Breslin. Adaptation by Don McGuire. Produced by Herman Hoffman, Dore Schary. Photographed by William C. Mellor. Edited by Newell P. Kimlin. Music by André Previn. Production Designed by Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons. Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande.
John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock is several things at once: a western, a film noir, a parable. It is a western without horses, a film noir without a big city, and a parable that doesn’t draw inspiration from too far away. These genres inform on each other in order to tell a story that plays upon a stage thick with deceit, racism, paranoia, and old shame. It engages in dark themes, but I would hesitate to call it “dark.” It’s more a sad little tragedy. Black Rock is a tiny town in a hard world, and it poisons itself through the choices of men relying on their essential instincts.
It is common for a western to use iconography that suggests the extreme heat, but even by those standards, Bad Day shows a landscape that is harsh. A Southern Pacific train chugs through the desert, under a pitiless sun. The town of Black Rock, barely a railway stop, is dusty and decrepit. The citizens are angular and leathery. There are no visible wells in town, no nearby bodies of water. The town itself lays thinly across the prairie as if stretching out to grasp something before it dies. When John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives in town, wearing a suit and tie, he is framed to look spectacularly misplaced, even invasive. He is older, missing an arm, a teensy bit slow. When he later visits the wreckage of a homestead out in the desert, it looks like the kind of place that could swallow him up.
It is 1945. World War II has just ended, its aftershocks still being felt. Macreedy has come here looking for a Japanese farmer named Komoko. He will keep his reasons to himself for a long time, and this restraint is in many ways the essence of Macreedy’s character. Macreedy is not hostile, just prefers not to explain his motives. He will be greeted with hostility when he arrives in Black Rock, right from the start: the townspeople question his intentions, how long he’ll be here for, why he’s looking for Komoko, and are no generally no help in supplying information. After checking into his hotel, cowboy Hector David (Lee Marvin) plants himself on the visitor’s bed and tries to suss him out. First he bullies him into changing rooms, then criticizes how Macreedy caves under pressure: “I believe a man’s nothing unless he stands up for what’s rightfully his.” Macreedy guesses he agrees, but does not challenge Hector. The day will be pretty much like this, but worse.
Pretty much every denizen of Black Rock will come onto Macreedy’s radar at one point. While Hector is up-front in his surliness, others are more-passive aggressive. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the local tough guy, drips condescension and deploys racist slurs, baiting anyone who disagrees with him. Coley (Ernest Borgnine) tries to run Macreedy off the road and later chastises him when they both meet back in town. “Look what you did to my car,” he smiles. Still others seem to be marinating in their own shame: Hastings (Russell Collins), the telegraph operator, holds the key to the only communication out of town, but he’s under Smith’s thumb. The doctor (Walter Brennan) urges Macreedy to reconsider his investigation, and Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), the sheriff, has drank himself into non-existence. The nicest person in town seems to be Liz Werth (Anne Francis), but even she has her secrets, rejecting his requests for help, muttering “I don’t want to get involved.” Even the cinematography and editing are quiet, as is frightened to move or cut away: scenes frequently play out in longer takes, creating a palpable sense of unease.
Macreedy himself is a restrained man, but not passive. We learn that he served in the War, and that Komoko’s son died saving Macreedy’s life. Throughout the film, he has the attitude of someone who truly sees violence as a horrifying last resort, but is watching every other option be stripped from him. During his stay at Black Rock, he will be threatened and verbally abused. Attempts on his life will be made, and he is advised to leave more than once. As Macreedy is met with increasing levels of obstruction, he shifts from curious to amused, then annoyed, then frustrated. During one of his tirades, Smith pokes Macreedy for a reaction, stating “I believe a man is as big as what’ll make him mad.” Macreedy does not like being provoked, and does not succumb easily.
Finally, Macreedy does become mad. When Coley, bringing his antagonism to a boil, calls him a “Jap lover,” then sneers at his disability. Only then does Macreedy commit violence, and boy does he, dispatching Coley with a few well-chosen chops. This earns him a modicum of respect, but not a reprieve. Later, he speaks of the despond he sank into after learning his own ability to do violence, and tells of his plans to get lost somewhere, uncertain of his own ability to “rejoin the human race.” Instead he found himself in Black Rock, to give his rescuer’s father a medal, and finds others who would do well to examine their own abandoned values.
That’s where the parable aspect comes in. It goes to reason, of course, that Komoko did not disappear. He was murdered. The tale of the actual killing, which comes late in the story, pins the culpability on the racist monster Reno, but the idea is clear: it doesn’t matter who specifically killed Komoko, because the whole town did, either through action or inaction. The murder is cold enough, but the ensuing cover-up has made it worse; it may be easy to blame Smith and no one else, but Macreedy has no respect for the weaklings who now cower in Smith’s shadow. When Pete (John Ericson), the hotel owner, protests his innocence by offering his self-pity, Macreedy lays into him with unbridled contempt. “You haven’t forgotten, and you’re ashamed. That’s really noble of you. I suppose four years from now you’ll be sitting around telling people you haven’t forgotten me, either.” The evil that men do is nothing compared to that evil that occurs when others let them do it.
Still, to simply call this “evil,” I think, is to externalize it as an “other,” and undersell its lesson. Like many film noirs, Bad Day plumbs the human psyche and discovers frightful things. When Pete recounts the story of Komoko’s murder, he mentions the context of Reno’s double humiliation that very night: being turned down for enlistment, and watching Komoko exploit a piece of his property better than he did himself. Like many racists, his irrational hatred is born out of very real fears, such as his own inadequacy and insecurity. These are the same things that every person suffers from, in Black Rock and in reality. Lucky people never see these fears manifest, or are saved by others. Unlucky people…well, they do what they must in order to survive. You can almost pity them. To see the joy in which Colley attacks the innocent Macreedy, or the remorseless self-preservation with which Reno makes a fateful decision about Liz Werth, and one sees unchecked human instincts let out to play. It isn’t pretty.
More than anything, Bad Day at Black Rock deconstructs the American myth of the small town. We generally like to think that out-of-the way places such as this one are more innocent, and more secure in their ethics than big cities, which are hotbeds of corruption and vice. Frank Capra, after all, made a career out of building small-town dreams on film. But Bad Day is born out of one inherent truism: no matter what its location, human nature is human nature. This is the essence of what makes film noir such a venerable genre: locations change, eras change, but people do not.
And then there are the questions raised. Raised, but not fully answered. Because how can they be? Is civilization sincere or is it a convenient put-on? What is a person truly capable of, when he is enabled to do so? Does violence only beget more violence? Is a person inherently good or evil? We often take it as a given that we lead well-intentioned lives, would never do wrong, would never commit atrocities. We’re good people. It’s a notion that helps us get through our own bad days. It’s sometimes all that we have. It’s convenient to think this.
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