This movie is worth a revisit largely because Spencer Tracy, playing World War II combat veteran, John J. Macreedy, puts on a clinic of inspired acting, a high point even for him. His performance is heightened by the elemental and stark stage of the movie–a forsaken tiny desert town in an interior wasteland in California in a hot Summer where it’s an event when the train rushing across that virtual nothingness pulls to a quick stop at the ramshackle shack along the arrow-straight tracks to allow a passenger to get off. Tracy’s acting prowess is enhanced by the excellent cast–Robert Ryan as the principal villain, Reno Smith; Dean Jagger as the cowardly sheriff, Tom Horn (get it?); Ernest Borgnine as the thug, Coley Trimble; Anne Francis as the car mechanic, Liz Wirth; Lee Marvin, as the thug, Hector David; and Walter Brennan and John Ericson as supporting players.
The story plot is simple. Macreedy has lost an arm owing to being wounded during combat in the Italian campaign during the war. His life was saved in the fighting by the medal-awarded but later killed son of a Japanese farmer Macreedy believes to be living in Black Rock, Mr. Komoko–a most plausible event since Japanese American service men, sometimes allowed out of the “Relocation Camps” in which Japanese Americans were “interned” in the early 1940s, often were deployed in the Italian Campaign. Macreedy wants to bring his son’s medal to the father in Black Rock.
It soon becomes evident that Komoko has been murdered in Black Rock and that everyone there is trying to cover it up. A Little Town’s bad secret. Sheriff Horn, highly knowledgeable of the deed, wants no part of the case. The story is that Reno Smith leased some land to Komoko in the belief it held no water, and when Komoko dug a successful well, he was attacked one night by an indignant Smith and his thugs and murdered.
Macreedy, finding little but menace among the few townspeople, immediately senses the coverup and rents a car and drives out and inspects what is left of Komoko’s house–it has been been burned down but Macreedy drops a rock into the well and hears a splash; and he notes desert flowers growing over what he concludes is a grave. At the time he comments on neither discovery: Bad Day at Black Rock is a paragon of understatement. (The first time we see Sheriff Horn, he’s asleep in one of his jailhouse cells: enough said.) Of course, the understatement pulls you right into the story and makes you especially friendly toward Macreedy, a man of just enough words.
I suspect Tracy’s wonderful acting skills schooled the already fine cast. Slowly but, of course, surely, the crime is uncovered and a sort of natural justice is rendered. But the tension between Macreedy, Smith and the thugs grows beautifully apace and never fails the test of clarity and economy. The acting and the telling of this story are simply superb. Another way of saying it is that the unity of the action would make Aristotle with his timeless story “Unities” proud.
And revisits of some of his movie roles, certainly including this one, always remind me that Lee Marvin, as they say, wasn’t half bad.
Well worth a revisit. It hasn’t aged.