Set just after the end of World War II in 1945, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock is a suspenseful drama, film noir and a western. Based on the short story “Bad Time at Hondo” by Howard Breslin and adapted by Don McGuire, the film delivers an unmistakable message concerning the scourge of racial prejudice.
Spencer Tracy stars as one-armed John Macreedy. He arrives in the shabby desert town of Black Rock by via express train. Not accustomed to visitors (this is only the second time in four years the train has stopped there), residents are anything but warm, giving John the cold shoulder, making it clear that outsiders aren’t welcome in Black Rock. Wearing a black suit and missing his left arm, Macreedy is even further from the norm. While we know Macreedy has come to Black Rock with a specific purpose, exactly what isn’t immediately clear. Certain pieces of information begin to clarify things: we learn of a missing Japanese man, Macreedy’s World War II service (where he lost his arm) and a burned down house in town. It soon becomes clear that almost everyone in Black Rock has something to hide.
Black Rock is controlled by rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) and his two thugs Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin). All three men are physically intimidating, constantly in Macreedy’s face. Smith and his thugs power comes from not allowing outsiders into their lives. Smith will do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. Sturges and director William Mellor (A Place in the Sun, Giant) further emphasize both Macreedy ‘s outsider status and Black Rock’s isolation from the bigger world with virtually no close-up shots. Viewers see from the hat to the boot of nearly every character.
Nominated for an Oscar, Millard Kaufman’s script is tight and methodical. Released in 1955, Bad Day at Black Rock was one of the first Hollywood films to directly address World War II internment of Japanese-American citizens, an action fueled by prejudice and mistrust. At one point, Smith refers to the Japanese as “mad dogs,” reinforcing their status as less than human and validating locking them up.
While it’s a stretch to except Spencer Tracy as a World War II veteran (he was 55 during filming, but looked older), he embodies Macreedy with his usual dose of noble strength. Only using his physical strength when absolutely necessary, he relies on his wry sense of humor to get under the skin of his adversaries. Macreedy is a man-on-a-mission, but he also wants to get out of Black Rock alive.
Warner Archive has produced some impressive Blu-ray’s and Bad Day at Black Rock is no exception. Presented in its original Cinemascope 2.55:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer offers strong image detail and noticeable textures throughout. The film’s earthy color palette looks fresh, extenuating the cinematography. The print is clean and digital manipulation is a no-show.
Bad Day at Black Rock’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is crisp throughout. Notably, André Previn’s score is given wonderful separation with this new lossless presentation. Beyond that, dialogue is clear and concise.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras have been ported over from the 2005 DVD:
- Audio Commentary with Film Historian Dana Polan: Polan discusses the film’s themes in a rather academic but fascinating manner. He also offers some insight into John Sturges’ directing style and technique.
- Original Theatrical Trailer