Blurring the lines between westerns, film noir, and mysteries, Bad Day at Black Rock is hard to categorize. Released on DVD this week, director John Sturges' 1954 film is a seamless marriage of multiple genres, a tight-knit thriller that moves at a laconic pace. It is also a classic example of the old-school tough-guy films, with Spencer Tracy standing out as an unconventional yet thoroughly convincing asskicker.
The fun begins several months after the end of World War II, when John J. Macreedy (Tracy), a disabled veteran, arrives by train in the sleepy desert community of Black Rock. This is the first time the train has stopped in Black Rock in four years, and Macreedy is the first visitor in that time. What his purpose is in town remains unclear, but the one thing that is certain is that he is not welcome. From the moment he steps off the train, Macreedy is greeted with suspicion and outright hostility. And when he begins asking questions about a resident of Black Rock, a Japanese-American named Komoko, things really begin to heat up. It is soon clear that the antisocial townsfolk have a secret they want to keep, even if it means killing Macreedy.
Spencer Tracy is not the first actor you think of as an action hero. And when you try to imagine him going up against villains like those portrayed by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, it's difficult to not break out laughing. But Tracy manages, for the most part, to pull it off. He plays Macreedy as a world-weary loner who arrives in Black Rock with nothing to live for, but soon finds a renewed sense of purpose-first in unraveling the mystery surrounding Komoko and, eventually, in trying to stay alive. Tracy's Macreedy is the classic reluctant hero, much like Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, but at the same time he is the mysterious force to be reckoned with, much like the characters Clint Eastwood would go on to play in many of his westerns. In fact, Bad Day at Black Rock bears a passing resemblance to the Eastwood classic High Plains Drifter, where a stranger wanders into a sleepy town and demands retribution for past misdeeds.
Sturges, best known for such classic action films as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, delivers one of the best films of his esteemed career. In the contemporary era of action movies, defined by fast-paced editing and pyrotechnics, Bad Day at Black Rock is from a time when shot composition meant something, and action was used as a punctuation mark rather than the entire sentence.