It’s 1945, just after World War II, and Spencer Tracy is John J. Macreedy – a one-armed ex-army man who steps off the train in Black Rock, a remote California desert town.
We don’t know what he’s come for, nor do the inhabitants, but they are hostile and it soon becomes clear that they are hiding something.
Director John Sturges slowly turns up the tension as Macreedy digs deeper into the town’s secret, while the inhabitants cut the phone wires and disable a car in which he tries to leave.
Set in an arid western landscape, to which the film’s CinemaScope ratio gives full value, and shot in colour – mostly in blinding sunlight – Bad Day at Black Rock is sandwiched between a number of notable Sturges Westerns, including Escape From Fort Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Yet despite its look, Black Rock is really more of a film noir, with its story of dark secrets in the past.
There is little physical action and hardly any gunplay, though one scene is memorable, when Macreedy is finally provoked to fight by the brutish Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine). The one-armed man reveals a repertoire of karate chops and punches that fell his opponent like a slaughtered ox.
Macreedy faces an impressive line-up of heavies here, including ringleader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), whose hysteria is never far below the surface, and Hector David (Lee Marvin in one of his most menacing roles).
Macreedy has to rely for help on the community’s weaker members: the reclusive Doc (Walter Brennan) and the drunken cowardly sheriff (Dean Jagger).
Eventually, Macreedy manages to invest them with a little of his courage and they help him make a break, but ultimately he is forced to rely on his own ingenuity.
The town’s dirty secret proves to be the murder of a Japanese-American in the days following Pearl Harbor.
John J. Macreedy