BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK pulled strong reviews and drew three Oscar nominations, but the 1955 “One Man” classic was not all that successful at the boxoffice when it came out, only tagging 54th place in a busy year crowded with different samples of Americana. A much bigger audience awoke to the film when it hit NBCs Saturday Night at the Movies in the early 60s, leaving enough of a cultural impression that the title entered the national lexicon. A timely story, taut direction and a top cast make this a standout.
“Somebody’s always looking for something in this part of the west. For the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the undeveloped west…but to us, this place is our west, and I wish they’d leave us alone!”
Out west, somewhere hot and isolated, not long after the end of WW2. When a rare visitor gets off the train, he finds Black Rock not just parched and lonely, but pointedly dangerous to his health. Handicapped veteran ‘John J. Macreedy’ (Spencer Tracy) is looking for the father of a soldier who was killed saving Macreedy’s life in combat. ‘He’s looking for ‘Komoko’, a Japanese-American, and it’s soon apparent some residents took Pearl Harbor anger too far. Hamlet bigshot ‘Reno Smith’ (Robert Ryan) has the few locals cowed, helped by his thugs ‘Hector’ (Lee Marvin) and ‘Coley’ (Ernest Borgnine). ‘Liz’ (Anne Francis) and her brother ‘Pete’ (John Ericson) are no help, neither are the useless, alcoholic sheriff (Dean Jagger), wormy telegrapher (Russell Collins) or diner owner (Walter Sande). Only undertaker ‘Doc Velie’ (Walter Brennan) seems to have a spine to go with a conscience, telling Macreedy “The rule of law has been suspended in this town; the gorillas have taken over.”
Millard Kaufman’s lean script was an expansion of a 1946 short story called “Bad Time At Honda”, written by Michael Niall. ‘Black Rock’ was borrowed from an Arizona pit stop, with location filming done around California’s Sierra Nevada burg of Lone Pine, site of countless gritty movie standoffs.
This was one of those kismet instances where, after a fractious birth process, the end result came off beautifully. Liberal-minded MGM exec Dore Schary (who produced it) wanted something to take on—if tangentially—the honor blot of how loyal Japanese-Americans had been treated. Writer/director/pain-in-the-ass Richard Brooks was dumped after trying to scuttle an already truculent Tracy, so on-the-rise John Sturges was brought in to direct. Smart move. Sturges made keen use of CinemaScope to enhance the tension inherent in the story with smart blocking of his people in the frame, juxtaposing the vast open landscape with the claustrophobic barrenness of the sets and the few human figures in them. *
Using the High Noon template of a time-frame compression, the meat-only 81 minutes kicks off in a sensational beginning with a train cannonballing at the audience. Executed via smart trick camera work, Paul Mantz’ piloting a helicopter and reverse printing in the mix, it’s sped on by furiously serious André Previn scoring.
Tracy’s granite-hard, imperturbable calm subtly disguises a power-projection of intelligence, tenacity and resourcefulness in the service of decency. That the actor, at 54, was twice the age a WW2 platoon leader would have been goes by the way as soon as he speaks. He faces off against a formidable crew. Oscar-holders Brennan and Jagger and fresh talents Francis and Ericson pull their weight, but it’s that trio of bastards who raise hackles—Ryan, Borgnine and Marvin letting you know you’re not wanted carries menace like a basket of rattlesnakes. Ryan’s domineering assurance, cutting bark and suggestion of being unhinged, Marvin’s insolent poise, gaze and voice, and Borgnine’s ability to project ugly, child-like happy-cruelty make certain it will be a bad day at any rock you happen to step on.
The efficient production tally came to $1,271,000. Cogerson has it with a gross of $5,100,000, Wikipedia quotes “The Eddie Mannix Ledger” saying it took in $3,788,000. The IMDB cites the second figure. Oscar nominations came down for Tracy as Best Actor, Sturges for direction, Kaufman for his Script. A different sample of Americana, Marty, took all three, including newcomer Borgnine scooping old lion Tracy.
* Sweat: temperatures under the lights hit 125 degrees, hell to work in, but perfect for suggesting a town on the boil and its unwelcome visitor in the frying pan.
Nerves: while several of the other actors were intimidated working next to Tracy, after filming one of their confrontation scenes, Tracy asked writer Kaufman “Does Ryan scare you?” Kaufman said “No, I’ve known Bob Ryan for years. He’s a fine man.” Spence replied “Well, he scares the hell out of me.”
Scares: the stuntman doubling for Ryan in the ‘Molotov cocktail scene’ was badly burned.
Gall: the essential set-up has been used a number of times since, but the Award for Cheek goes to MGM for whoring the story in 1960 with another studio alumnus, Mickey Rooney, in a minor item with the snag-the-teens title Platinum High School. That nugget has a diller co-star mashup—Dan Duryea, Terry Moore, Yvette Mimieux, Richard Jaeckel, Elisha Cook and…Conway Twitty! Gotta track it down, sounds like a fun day at Platinum High.