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Bad Day at Black Rock

February 15, 2011

287. Bad Day at Black Rock
Directed by John Sturges
USA, 1955
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
First viewing

Synopsis:

John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a war veteran who lost his left hand in combat, arrives in the isolated desert town of Black Rock. The train hasn’t stopped there for four years, and the locals are immediately suspicious of him. Macreedy is looking for a man named Komoko, about whom the locals are particularly tight-lipped, especially the town’s self-appointed leader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). Despite intimidation and eventual violence from the residents of Black Rock, Macreedy gradually uncovers the sinister truth about Komoko’s disappearance.

Essential Scene:

Macreedy sits at the counter of the local diner, about to eat his lunch. Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), one of the local heels, stands in the doorway and challenges him. Meanwhile, Reno Smith plays pinball in the corner, quietly observing.

Trimble: Well, you still around? I thought you didn’t like this place.

Macreedy: You mean going to or coming from?

Trimble: Staying put.

Macreedy: No comment.

Trimble: No comment, he says. No comment and all the time he’s got my stool.

Macreedy pauses, then moves to another stool, allowing Trimble to sit down. Soon, Trimble decides the stool isn’t comfortable and suggests Macreedy to give up another for him. Macreedy responds, “Suppose you tell me where to sit,” putting paid to Trimble’s little game. After a pregnant pause, Trimble leans in and pours half a bottle of ketchup into Macreedy’s lunch.

Trimble: I hope that ain’t too much.

Macreedy: [to Smith] Your friend’s a very argumentative fellow.

Smith: Sort of unpredictable too. Got a temper like a rattlesnake.

Trimble: That’s me all over. I’m half horse, half alligator. You mess with me and I’ll kick a lung outta you. Whaddya think of that?

Macreedy: [poking at his lunch with a spoon] No comment.

Trimble: Talking to you is like pulling teeth. You wear me out. [shouting] You’re a yellow-bellied Jap lover, am I right or wrong?!

Macreedy: You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.

Macreedy calmly accuses Trimble of trying to start trouble, of trying to provoke him into violence so the gang could kill him and plead self-defence. Trimble offers to fight Macreedy with one hand tied behind his back. Macreedy stands up and starts to leave, but Trimble grabs him by his bad arm and spins him round to face him. “If I tied both hands?”

Macreedy swiftly gives Trimble a judo chop to the shoulder. Trimble staggers around the diner, collapsing against the wall in agony. He gasps for air. The other locals look on, mouths agape. Trimble lunges for Macreedy, but gets several more chops and a knee to the face for his troubles. He doesn’t admit defeat until he’s crashed through a screen door and finally been thrown to the floor. He’s no match for a one-armed man. Oh hell yeah!

Thoughts:

Bad Day at Black Rock begins as a wonderfully enigmatic thriller. As he steps off the train, all we know about John J. Macreedy is what we can see; that he has one arm constantly tucked in his pocket, presumably because of a wounded or missing hand. We don’t know why he came to Black Rock, nor why the locals treat him with such suspicion and hostility. Gradually we’re offered more pieces of the puzzle, until we can see enough to guess the rest of the chilling picture. Whilst maintaining the thrilling tension (it’s a relatively short film, just 81 minutes), it becomes a picture of post-war malaise, and the way in which some people use war as validation for their own prejudices.

The cast is impressive. Robert Ryan, who came to prominence in the similarly-themed Crossfire, once again proves his ability to play racist thugs, supported by the equally menacing Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. But really it’s Spencer Tracy’s film. He’s a unique, magnetic screen presence and, while it’s not my first encounter with him, I look forward to seeing much more of his work.

Being in a wheelchair myself, the way in which disablity is portrayed in film is obviously of interest to me. Too often, disabled characters are either figures of pity or patronizing inspiration. Not so with Bad Day at Black Rock. Macreedy’s war wound, while being a defining feature of the character, is not milked for sympathy. And his “triumph against adversity” is, while genuinely triumphant, more logical than inspirational. He’s a war vet; of course he can kick your ass, one-handed or not!

 

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