From the time John J. Macreedy steps off the train in Black Rock, he feels a chill from the local residents. The town is only a speck on the map and few if any strangers ever come to the place. Macreedy himself is tight-lipped about the purpose of his trip and he finds that the hotel refuses him a room, the local garage refuses to rent him a car and the sheriff is a useless drunkard. It's apparent that the locals have something to hide but when he finally tells them that he is there to speak to a Japanese-American farmer named Kamoko, he touches a nerve so sensitive that he will spend the next 24 hours fighting for his life. Written by
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Director John Sturges doesn't waste a second. You've got to love a picture that strips itself down to its bare elements, strikes right at the heart of the audience's sympathies and winds up in just over 80 minutes. 'Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)' might just be one of the most suspenseful non-Hitchcock films of the 1950s, a near-perfect mechanical construction of unspoken tension and looming disaster. Similar in tone to intimate Western pictures such as Fred Zinnemann's 'High Noon (1952)' and Delmer Daves' '3:10 to Yuma (1957),' the picture is a curious combination of Western and War film motifs, with an understated racial overtone that recognisably foreshadows Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison's 'In the Heat of the Night (1967).' Spencer Tracy is wonderful as John J. Macreedy, a one-armed WWII veteran who has arrived in the desolate town of Black Rock in search of a Japanese man. Upon arrival, he discovers that the town's isolation has spawned a local law of its own, and his suspicions of foul-play make him a target for the antagonism of its residents.
Even from the opening seconds, before anybody has displayed any ill-intentions, the tension quietly begins to build. The inhabitants of Black Rock look up with expressions of confusion and disbelief as the locomotive unexpectedly comes to a halt at their local railway station, and cautious eyes follow Macreedy as he swaggers guardedly through the dusty streets the grim, wary frowns of the local men already offer sufficient warning that this day is, indeed, going to be a bad one. 'Bad Day at Black Rock' was photographed by William C. Mellor in CinemaScope, and the widescreen cinematography spectacularly captures the vastness of the desert, particularly in a dramatic opening shot that sees the camera approaching a moving train head-on, before rising above it at the final moment. Yet the abundance of wide-open spaces paradoxically heightens the intimacy of Macreedy's interactions with the townsfolk, and Sturges masterfully communicates both the seclusion of the isolated town and the closing walls of impending doom. Macreedy responds to the antagonism directed towards him, first with an air of indifference, but eventually with a sort of subdued desperation.
Whereas the participation of generic "bad guys" might have significantly hampered the film, 'Bad Day at Black Rock' boasts an impressive ensemble of gifted character actors, fronted by Robert Ryan as Reno Smith, the crafty, charismatic villain whose ability to cunningly manipulate his neighbours has made him the foremost authority in the forsaken town, unofficially outranking even the cowardly alcoholic sheriff (Dean Jagger). Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, in roles that helped secure their status as respected actors, are very entertaining as Smith's mindless, thuggish hoodlums, particularly when the latter attempts to start a fight and discovers the hard way that even one-armed men can hit back. Walter Brennan, one of Hollywood's most recognisable character actors with that docile drawl of his, is initially Macreedy's sole ally in the hostile township, the courage of this outranked stranger inspiring his own sense of moral decency. At the film's climax, Sturges finally unleashes the steadily-mounting tension, and, extracting every ounce of anxiety from the unusually-brief 81 minute running-time, delivers a conclusion that is both exciting and satisfying.
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