Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

“Four years ago, something terrible happened here. We did nothing about it — nothing!”

When a one-armed veteran (Spencer Tracy) arrives in the small town of Bad Rock, California in 1945, its inhabitants — including the hotel desk clerk (John Ericson) and his sister (Anne Francis), the sheriff (Dean Jagger), the undertaker (Walter Brennan), and three menacing men — Reno (Robert Ryan), Hector (Lee Marvin), and Coley (Ernest Borgnine) — give him the run-around, refusing to answer his questions about the mysterious disappearance a few years ago of a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Anne Francis Films
  • Dean Jagger Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • John Sturges Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Veterans
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • Westerns

Although Peary doesn’t review this title in his GFTFF, he did write an essay in 1991 for the Criterion Collection, which I’ll be referencing here. In that essay he writes that this “cult favorite” — “adapted from a story by Howard Breslin” — remains a “taut, efficiently-made, modern-day western,” and is often “compared… to High Noon because it feature[s] an individual who takes on several bad guys while the townspeople do nothing.” He notes that highlights include “Millard Kaufman’s bold script about racial hatred and misguided ‘Americanism’,” “Andre Previn’s powerful score,” and “the widescreen Panavision photography of William C. Mellor,” whose “work is most striking in shots of the town of Black Rock set against the flat desert terrain of one of film history’s most classic western locations — the Lone Pine area at the foot of Mount Whitney at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas.”

Peary points out that director John Sturges “was one of the best directors of masculine action films in which the setting had thematic relevance and men confronted terrible odds and/or attempted daring escapes” — including such titles as The Magnificant Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). He notes that “while Tracy is at the heart of the picture, it’s delightful to watch him interact with his fabulous supporting cast” — including Ryan playing “one of his better neurotic characters”:

Marvin and Borgnine “gleefully playing frightening villains”:

and Walter Brennan “as feisty as ever.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s positive review of this surprisingly tense, uniquely scripted thriller, and can understand why it was selected in 2018 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It’s well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as John Macreedy
  • Fine supporting performances by the cast

  • William C. Mellor’s cinematography

  • Millard Kaufman’s screenplay

    Reno Smith (Ryan):“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!”

  • Andre Previn’s score

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Genuine Classic

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

  1. Not must-see; though ultimately it’s not a bad film.

    While I admire the main idea behind the film, I also recognize that this is a very thin script. Because the film’s point is not a large one (in narrative terms) – and there’s not much else going on besides that point – what we end up with is a story that plays slowly and is stretched to the max.

    It might be a different matter if the story had various plot-enhancing complications, but that’s not really the case. We more or less know we’re not going to be getting much, other than what we get up front, so things sort of plod along. In the absence of much genuine suspense, Previn does what he can (at every turn) to make the film more suspenseful than it really is.

    True, the cast is a sturdy one and that helps a lot. But, though I like the film’s social message, I find the film itself ponderous.

    (Tracy won a Best Actor award at Cannes.)

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