This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Written by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman
Directed by John Sturges
The frenzy of war often brings the greatest evil out of people. Humans have a penchant for looking for an Other to blame for their ills and the sins of the world. We don’t have to go too far back in our history to find an endless parade of atrocities and hate crimes perpetrated on these Others. The murders and savagery never quell the sense of discontent in the perpetrators, instead planting a ball of guilt in their stomach that festers & boils. How foolishly we target individuals rather than the systems in the place that create war and strife. Easier to kill an innocent person who doesn’t look like you or speaks a different language than work for solidarity to overcome the wrong we all feel. Bad Day at Black Rock is a modern folktale about justice being visited on people guilty of such crimes.
Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train in Black Rock, California, and causes ripples in the quiet lives of this isolated town. The handful of citizens there eye him with suspicion and mistrust. He’s bullied by a couple of local toughs (Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin) and told him there’s no room at the hotel and no place to eat at the diner. We get answers when Macreedy is confronted by resident Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) as the visitor explains he’s come to visit an old friend, Komoko. Smith tells Macreedy that his Japanese friend got shipped off to an internment camp years ago, nothing to see in Black Rock. But the newcomer doesn’t believe these lies, and he knows there’s a hatred roiling under the surface here. Despite full awareness of the threat to his life, the protagonist continues pursuing the truth, no matter how horrific it may be.
I am always fascinated with movies about American atrocities made not long after they happened. It’s not a very common kind of film because the media in the States is very good at following an exceptionalism narrative that continually course-corrects through whitewashing history. Director John Sturges leans into Westerns visual tropes and symbols, one of the most beloved genres of American cinema. Typically these are bright, sweeping pictures that play into the rosy mythologizing of American expansion. To counter the landscape of his story, Sturges has a script forged in the darkness of noir. Like a Western, Bad Day starts with a stranger coming to town. It’s almost a reversal of High Noon; the stranger who arrives is not the danger here; it’s the townspeople. The folly of human nature, the most essential theme in all of noir, is what drives Bad Day. We are here to confront something evil and burn away all excuses to shield the perpetrators.
Like High Noon, Bad Day chooses to aim its narrative as a critique of the mob. While the former picture deals with people’s reticence to confront evil, Bad Day shifts slightly to look at people who use a crisis to commit atrocities and those who look the other way and inevitably become accomplices. The town doctor (Walter Brennan) and alcoholic sheriff know what they allowed Smith and his cronies to do is wrong. But because they did nothing at the time, they rightly fear that they will be held accountable. There is no blood directly on their hands, but by protecting “one of their own,” they have become a rabid mob.
Tracy delivers a fantastic performance, coming close to highlighting the unnatural stiffness in some of his co-stars. There’s something so natural and effortless at approaching the situation; Macreedy is a man tempered through life experience. There were some concerns about him being 55 years old when the story was conceived with a younger man in mind. I would argue his age infers more about him than the words on the page provide. He’s seen horrible things in life, and they inform how he deals with these brutes. It infuriates them when he won’t engage with their taunts, so they escalate until he responds with a force that protects him and even them. What might surprise a lot of modern audiences is that Bad Day features zero deaths on screen. There’s violence, but Macreedy doesn’t want to kill anyone; he wants real justice.
Right now, I see a rabid feeding frenzy on social media surrounding the Ukraine/Russia war. Congressman Eric Swalwell was floating very internment-like sentiments saying Russian students in the States should be expelled and assets should be seized. There’s no differentiation in his statements between Russian immigrants or the working class versus Oligarchs, the actual evil that exists in Russia. It’s these blanket statements of hate that lead to people targeting members of their own communities, seeing the Others among them, and wanting to kill them. There’s a beautiful sequence where Smith finally concedes to Macreedy about his crime and, with each statement, attempts to justify his actions. This exchange sums up the whole film and should be remembered by anyone who feels a bloodlust in them.
Reno Smith: I swear, you’re beginning to make me mad.
John J. Macreedy: All strangers do, hmm?
Reno Smith: No, they don’t. Not all of them. Some do, when they come around snooping…
John J. Macreedy: Snooping for what?
Reno Smith: I don’t know, outsiders coming in, looking for something…
John J. Macreedy: Looking for what?
Reno Smith: I don’t know! Somebody’s always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West — they say we’re all poor and backward, and I guess we are, we don’t even have enough water. But to us, this place is *our* West, and I wish they’d leave us alone!
John J. Macreedy: Leave you alone to do what?
Reno Smith: I don’t know what you mean.