Bad Day at Black Rock

Movie Information

In Brief: Clocking in at a tight 81 minutes, John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) is everything you don't expect from a John Sturges movie. It's taut, tense, and it doesn't dawdle. The film is an expression of the increasingly leftist slant that MGM had taken after Dore Schary had managed to oust right-winger Louis B. Mayer from controlling the studio. (The idea of a movie dealing with an embittered war hero coming to Black Rock and uncovering a racially motivated murder and a conspiracy to cover it up under Mayer was unthinkable.) Spencer Tracy is uncommonly good, and the whole cast is strong — even if Borgnine's role seems like reheated William Bendix. Though the film suffers from being an early Cinemascope production — there's not a single close-up in the movie — Sturges evidences a clear understanding of composing for the wide-screen. It isn't quite a great movie, but it's a very good one.
Genre: Drama
Director: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis,Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin
Rated: NR



There’s something almost elegant about the spareness of Bad Day at Black Rock. It is a movie that’s so stripped down to the essentials of its story it barely catches its breath. That’s actually a pretty heady accomplishment for a film that mostly consists of people talking. Oh, sure, there are three honest-to-goodness action scenes, but the film really sells itself by creating an atmosphere of menace and dread — generated by nothing more than the simple set-up of a stranger (Tracy) coming into a dinky western town and encountering the inhospitable and suspicious townfolk. The film is a kind of mystery — actually two mysteries: why is the stranger here and what dark secret are the locals hiding?


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It’s a film I admit I avoided for years — when it was made and who it was made by held no immediate appeal — until I was stuck in the Holiday Inn at Gatwick Airport outside London and it was easily the best thing on TV. I also freely admit that it was immediately caught up in the urgency of the story — to a degree that I didn’t especially notice the clunkiness of the Cinemascope or certain other drawbacks that became apparent when I watched Bad Day at Black Rock again for this screening. One thing that struck me about the film this time is — widescreen to one side — that it often feels more like a TV drama of the era than a movie. (This sense is exacerbated by Andre Previn’s overly emphatic — especially when nothing much is happening — score that keeps sounding like it’s taking us to a commercial break.) The groups of people standing or sitting around talking just aren’t fluid. They feel more blocked-out (like a stage play) than directed. Still, as drama the film is effective, even if it doesn’t always convince as cinema.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Bad Day at Black Rock Sunday, May 31, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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