• Bad Day at Black Rock is a tight, no-bull 81-minutes coming from a no-bull director (John Sturges) and a no-bull star (Spencer Tracy). Tracy and Sturges have rarely, if ever, been better.
  • It is set in a sleepy (and angry) little town in the west. Parts were shot in Death Valley and the Mojave.
  • Started with a whirlwind score (even before Sturges worked with Elmer Bernstein, he apparently had a type he liked—just like with Nolan before Zimmer) with a train steaming into Black Rock. The train has not stopped there in four years. Tracy playing John J. Macreedy comes off the train for 24 hours exactly (a bad day). There is no exposition, Macreedy is simply on a mission looking for a man and he has landed in one of the unfriendliest places imaginable. This town has as dark past. It reminds me of Lago in Clint’s 1973 film High Plains Drifter– I wonder if this film was an influence.
  • The blocking and staging of characters in the wide, colored, CinemaScope frame is quite an accomplishment for Sturges. This is Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) or The Leopard (1963) or maybe 12 Angry Men from Lumet (1957) on a smaller scale. At the 9-minute mark there are five men in the frame staggered throughout the hotel. Walter Brennan is in the middle of the frame on a sofa.
  • There are heavyweights everywhere in the cast and they are all given their moments to puff their chests and show off their talents gloriously. I mentioned Brennan (who apparently teased Tracy about having more Oscars when they were on set), but also Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine (they team up again in The Wild Bunch in 1969). Borgnine actually beat out Tracy for the Oscar in 1955 for his work in Marty. Ryan was a big name in 1955. Dean Jagger is in the cast (one year after White Christmas) as is Lee Marvin.
  • A great shot off the hotel window glass with Tracy walking by as Brennan watches.

The jaw-dropper of a shot, worthy of Kurosawa (Sturges remember is a big admirer already in 1955—but he would go on to do The Magnificent Seven) at the 24-minute mark as six characters draw a circle around Ryan’s character in a stunning composition.

  • Sturges would never display this level of visual artistry again sadly.

The dialogue is sharp, it is almost all scenes of intimidation or “needling” as Tracy’s character calls it as tough guys like Marvin, and Borgnine, try to run him out of town. Sturges often captures them from low angles in a row as they eyeball Tracy—menacing.

At the 39-minute mark Tracy and Ryan have a great scene together with the old red gas pumps in the center and Sturges using the full frame. He opts for the cinematic painting again here over the shot/reverse shot typical style.

  • An examination of racism- “patriotic drunk” as one of the characters calls it. Japanese internment camps,
  • Sturges ends with the train pulling out of town, the 24 hours are up in a great bookend. I do not love that Tracy’s character gives the town the medal.
  • Highly Recommend/Must-See border