I was just a teenager when this one came out, and I never got a chance to see it. Some of the other guys were talking about it, but nobody ever delved into the storyline. There were some comments about the title, and I got the idea there was supposed to be some second meaning. For over 50 years I puzzled about it, maybe thinking about it every ten years. This month it came on Turner Classic Movies, and I recorded it. It’s Bad Day at Black Rock from 1955, and it’s bad.
This movie has star power. It has Spencer Tracy. It has Robert Ryan. It has Ernest Borgnine. It has Walter Brennan. It has Lee Marvin in his villainous best. It even has Ann Francis and Dean Jagger. Music is by André Previn. So what’s wrong with this movie? It’s the damn writing again. This may have been during the time a lot of top script writers were on the HUAC’s blacklist, because none of them showed up to turn out a plot that makes sense.
Here’s the story. It’s about December 1945, just weeks after World War II fighting has stopped. Tracy is Major John J. Macreedy, in civilian clothing and with only one usable arm. It was next to impossible in those days for a makeup artist to fake a missing arm, so they had Tracy keep his left hand in his pocket for the duration of the film.
Anyhow, Macreedy is on a mission, and he comes to Black Rock, which is somewhere in the Arizona desert. Macreedy has come to deliver a medal for heroism in combat. The recipient was Joe Kumoko, who was killed in battle. Macreedy needs to deliver the medal to Joe’s father, who lives in Adobe Flat.
While Black rock comprises barely 20 structures beside the railroad tracks, Adobe Flat is not even on the map. It’s just the name of a place out in the desert, and that’s where the elder Kumoko lives. Things start to go really badly for Major Macreedy when he mentions Kumoko’s name, because it turns out that people from Black Rock murdered Kumoko right after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, and they have been keeping it a secret all these four years.
Here’s where the plot gets screwy. Joe Kumoko’s father was killed about the time hostilities broke out. Kumoko served in the Army during the war and was eventually killed in combat in Italy, which combat did not commence until about two years after America entered the war. How come Joe Kumoko did not know his father was dead, and how come he did not tell the Army, and how come Macreedy has come all the way out to Black Rock to deliver a medal to a person presumed deceased for four years? You might think Joe Kumoko would have taken note that his father stopped corresponding with him in December 1941.
Anyhow, the murder happened, and Macreedy’s snooping around is going to open up a bad can of worms. The principals involved have the rest of the town cowed, and they make plans to eliminate Macreedy before he can get back on the train the following day. Hence the title, Bad Day at Black Rock.
Here’s what else is wrong with this plot. Did I mention the town is barely 20 structures out in the wilderness? That’s all the director shows fit to let the audience see. Saves having to construct an elaborate set for such a slim plot. Also, in all the movie, when you can see practically the entire town in one shot, you never see more than the main characters. There are no “atmosphere people”—towns people walking around, shopping, going about their daily lives. This town does not even have enough population to occupy the buildings shown in the movie.
And Black Rock has a hotel with a number of rooms. And it has a fully-equipped jail. And a sheriff. What’s the jail for? Was it built in for when Wily Coyote finally catches the roadrunner and has to be locked up? People, only county seat’s have sheriffs. A county seat, even in Arizona, has more than ten people. This plot does not make sense.
Robert Ryan is Reno Smith, who did the actual killing for years ago, and he runs the town through his commanding presence and intimidation of others not persuaded by his commanding presence. Early on it becomes clear there is a plot to kill Macreedy and bury him out in the desert before he can get on the train the next day. However, the plotters need to wait until night. The reason for that never becomes clear.
There is some action. Here’s the setup. Macreedy is not a young man. Tracy would have been about 55 when the movie was made. Here he is, pitted against several younger tough guys who try to bully him. One of those is Coley Trimble (Borgnine). You can see it coming. Here is a tough old army major, fresh from action in the Italian campaign. Here are some town toughs who sat out the war. You suspect the army veteran is going to teach the punks some respect. When Trimble gets physical with Macreedy in the hotel lobby, Macreedy judo-chops him a few times and tosses him for a hard landing on the floor. All with one good arm. OK, then.
Anyhow, the tough guys need to wait for dark before making their move, and Macreedy gets a break when sweet Liz Wirth offers to drive him to safety in her jeep. But it’s a setup, and sweet Liz stops the jeep out in the desert so Reno can ambush Macreedy with a rifle.
This is crazy, again. Reno hides back in some rocks for the ambush. Liz and Reno have Macreedy alone out in the desert. Why is Reno going for the long shot? Why doesn’t he just walk up to Macreedy and blow him away? Why does he miss? When Macreedy is taking cover behind the jeep, why does Reno keep peppering away, and missing, with the rifle? This is the dumbest part of the plot.
Justice prevails. Liz is the first to get shot. Reno shoots her when she comes to join her partner in crime in the rocks. Reno doesn’t want any witnesses. As though there are not enough back in the town already.
Macreedy gets the jump on Reno and hits him with a Molotov cocktail he has contrived from gasoline in the jeep, and he brings the scorched killer, still alive, back to town to face justice. Miraculously, with the defeat of Reno the conspiracy collapses, and the remaining toughs turn meek as sheep.
Macreedy catches the train out of Black Rock the following day. The end.
Bad Day at Black Rock was shot in Eastman Color for MGM.
Three writers are responsible for this monstrosity:Millard Kaufman … (screen play)
Don McGuire … (adaptation)
Howard Breslin (story)