Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.
This week’s Old Ass Movie goes line for gritty line down the Western Genre Rules and twists them all up with a one-armed stranger, a Japanese farmer, a conspiracy, and a handful of deadly secrets. It’s Noir in the desert.
Director John Sturges takes all of it and works it into a sweat out in the southwest at the tail end of WWII. As a silent, enigmatic man gets off a train that never runs, everyone is in for a Bad Day at Black Rock.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Walter Brennan
This film is not set in the right time period to be a Western. There are car chases instead of horses pounding the dust after a man in a black hat. There’s a man in a black hat, but he stepped right out of a Noir flick and accidentally made it to the southwest. Basically, it’s a Western that gets things right by getting them wrong.
The black hat here is John J. Macreedy (played with the quiet intensity of Spencer Tracy) who is threatened by an unwelcoming town that distrusts unfamiliar faces. Probably most of all because he’s in the wrong genre entirely.
This is absolutely a mash-up of Western and Noir (which I’ll go ahead and creatively call Western Noir), and it only works because the underlying feature of both is tension that leads to death. When played strictly for drama, the tight-lipped, quick with the quips stranger could be Mike Hammer just as easily as The Man With No Name. They are lone figures with a strict code to which they determinedly adhere. One pounds the pavement, the other pounds the prairie, so it’s fascinating to see the former dropped into a near-ghost town much in the same way it’s fun to watch the Coen Brothers do the opposite today.
The dichotomy is also one of the modern squaring off against the old. The town of Black Rock is a living time capsule where the people have kept right along in the same manner they’ve been accustomed to for years. They’re hidden from a world that continues to move forward, but Macreedy’s arrival shatters that insular nature. Not only is he a stranger, he’s a symbol of everything they’ve avoided for a half century.
There’s one shot in particular where Sturges goes Panorama-style on Spencer Tracy standing by himself in the middle of a huge expanse of empty land. He either looks like a time traveler dropped from the sky or like the costume designer was about to get fired, and the effect is so damned incredible. It’s a pure visual of isolation and displacement that continues right along metaphorically even when Macreedy has people and buildings surrounding him. Even then, he might as well be standing in a field all alone and unstuck in time.
Bad Day at Black Rock is also the only opportunity to see all of these actors together. Tracy was too busy working with Katherine Hepburn to cross paths with Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, or Anne Francis until this picture, so it’s a unique chance to see a few different acting styles attempt to meet somewhere in the middle (since everything else is trying to).
This film is the culmination of the first part of John Sturges’s directing career. He began in the crime world – his first film being The Man Who Dared, about a reporter who fakes a murder in order to prove the death penalty should be banned. Sturges made several other crime and Noir stories before making his first true Western in 1949 called The Walking Hills. After working with both genres, it must have seemed natural to press them together into a delicious genre sandwich with the crust not cut off.
If it suffers from one flaw of aging, it’s that some of the acting seems a bit too forcefully done. It’s occasionally soap opera time in Black Rock, and it honestly takes away from some of the tension being built up by a town threatening to kill a stranger who won’t be missed.
There’s also not much of a plot to speak of. It’s high concept. A man comes looking for answers and finds them. It’s really the way in which he asks and the way in which he learns the secrets (and the manner of those secrets) that churn the engine here. The movie is an excuse for great actors to stand together and combat one another with words and sneers and wildflowers.
But it should not be missed. It’s a fantastic movie filled with sandpaper scratched dialogue, rough and ready performances, and a mystery that comes into focus like a sharp steppe vista. It’s also a too-rare example of an experiment in genre. If you love Westerns, if you love Noir, you’ll love this. Just try not to get dirt on your fedora.
You can check out the trailer for Bad Day at Black Rock here