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?
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.