BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is a film that flew completely under the radar for me. I’d never heard of it and when I saw the listing and the brief synopsis for the showing on Turner Classic, I thought it was a western. To be sure, this John Sturges directed film combined some western elements along with film noir and made a thriller I quite liked.
The cast list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood with Spencer Tracy, Anne Francis, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, and Dean Jagger, as well as some notable, though lesser lights of the period.
The time is shortly after WWII and a mysterious stranger(Spencer Tracy) gets off the liner when it stops at the small hamlet alongside the tracks. The railroad man is all agog. The last time the liner had stopped there was four years ago. John J. Macreedy says it will stop tomorrow as well to pick me up. Macreedy wears a suit, carries a small case, and has a stiff left arm that rides in a pocket on his jacket.
Right away, the stranger gets a hostile reception, no violence, just looks, nasty comments, and he’s denied a room at the hotel, told they are full. When he looks at the books, he points out they are empty and is told cowboys keep rooms on a kind of retainer for when they come to town. The stranger takes a key and says to let him know if the room becomes needed. Later when he comes back, a man named Hector David(Lee Marvin) lies on his bed and says it’s his room. At the diner, when he orders a bowl of chili, the town bully, Coley Trimble(Ernest Borgnine) tells him he’s sitting on his stool. The stranger pliantly moves over and then Trimble says his seat is a little rough today. “Just tell me which one is okay to sit in.”
The stranger won’t be pushed, resisting all attempts to rile him.
He asks a few people about the location of Adobe Flats and a man, Komoko, he’s looking for, which just brings more trouble. He rents a jeep from Liz Wirth(Anne Francis) and drives off to Adobe Flats, where he finds a house burned down and an unmarked grave. On the way back, the Borgnine character tries ramming him from behind several times. Even one-armed, he’s not helpless and controls the jeep. They find out shortly just how “not helpless” he really is when Borgnine jumps him about the damage he does to his car and, one handed, with a little help from judo, defeats him quite easily.
Black Rock harbors a secret and the town leader, Reno Smith(Robert Ryan), is determined it will stay secret.
The only two friendly toward Macreedy are Doc Velie(Walter Brennan) and Sheriff Tim Horn(Dean Jagger). Jagger is mostly a drunk and the Doc warns Macreedy. The phone lines are always mysteriously “busy” when he tries to get a call to the State police. The telegraph operator is under Reno Smith’s thumb.
We don’t find out till near the end why Macreedy is in Black Rock, tied into the secret the town is hiding.
This was a very good movie. For more such, look into Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.