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A streamliner passenger train suddenly stops one day at the tiny, remote desert town of Black Rock, which it had bypassed for years, and deposits a one-armed stranger. John J. Macreedy is a war veteran looking for a local farmer, the father of a Japanese-American soldier who was a member of Macreedy's platoon, killed in battle. The people of this almost deserted town view him with suspicion and treat him with overt hostility. It soon becomes apparent this is more than just a mistrust of strangers. Something happened here, something the townspeople will go to any lengths to hide. Macreedy begins to realize that his life is in danger but there is no one he can turn to in this hostile place. He tries to unravel the mystery regardless of the risks, but the locals close in on him, while trying to learn his true identity and his business with the missing farmer.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Millard Kaufman, adaptation by Don McGuire, based on "Bad Day at Hondo" by Howard Breslin
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editing: Newell P. Kimlin
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David).
C-82m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
Why BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is Essential
As accustomed as we are these days to multi-million dollar blockbusters loaded with elaborate effects and extravagant production design, it's fascinating to watch a film that proves how much can be accomplished with so little: Bad Day at Black Rock is a thrilling suspense drama with only a few brief outbursts of action and very little blood (Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr called it "an action film for people who don't like action films"). It's a suspense story in which the audience doesn't really know what's going on until nearly the end and a social-issues drama with a minimum of dialogue and posturing. With these elements, Bad Day at Black Rock emerged as one of the most distinctive films of the 1950s and has remained for more than a half century a favorite of audiences and critics alike.
On the one hand, this is very much a film of its time, an era celebrating American strength and optimism while harboring an undercurrent of paranoia and suspicion. The setting is immediately after World War II, and the story concerns a shameful episode in our history, the official sanctioning of long-festering hostility toward Japanese Americans. This was the first film to openly acknowledge the racism and fear that resulted in the wartime internment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese birth/ancestry, although it never directly deals with the government "relocation" camps set up for the duration. Instead, the story is boiled down to the primal tensions that arise between a mysterious stranger and the guilt-ridden citizens of a remote small town. In that respect, it's a movie that transcends its time and one that could easily work now with little updating: wars still occur, racial violence goes on, and anti-immigrant sentiment shifts from one ethnicity to another. Director John Sturges acknowledged how easily the basic premise could be adapted, and directors like Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard have commented on the appeal of remaking it.
Thematically, Black Rock packs a punch (or in this case, a karate chop), addressing a subject few wanted to recognize even ten years after the war and one which wouldn't receive an official government acknowledgment until 1988. Some have also read into it a response to the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts occurring since the end of the war, which took particular aim at both the army and the film industry. Sturges dismissed the notion that his film had anything to do with that, but screenwriter Millard Kaufman, himself accused of communist sympathies by the "Red Channels" pamphlet, saw it as a companion to High Noon (1952), a widely acknowledged anti-McCarthy statement couched in a Western. Referring to a line in Black Rock ("The rule of law has been suspended in this townthe guerrillas have taken over."), Kaufman inscribed in a copy of the script: "So it wasso it seemed to mein Hollywood during the McCarthy Captivity when this screenplay was written. It is dedicated to those men and women who inspired it, who courageously held their ground against the onslaught of the guerrillas." Whether or not Kaufman's statement was merely a case of hindsight has only fueled the continuing debate about the allegorical nature of the film. But remove that aspectindeed, take out the historical background about the Japanese internmentsand you still have a brilliantly minimalist piece of cinema.
Although the story and the setting are ostensibly realistic, Bad Day at Black Rock is actually highly stylized, and extremely pared down in the spare, economical and underpopulated manner of a Road Runner cartoon, with the same sudden violence exploding in a barren landscape. The community of Black Rock has few buildings and seems to be inhabited by less than a dozen people. (At the end, when the local doctor-undertaker talks about renewing the town and rebuilding its community, you wonder who would repopulate the town; the only apparent female resident has been killed and it seems all the younger men have been hauled off to jail.) Although he has never had anything but the highest praise for Bad Day at Black Rock, one has to wonder if Sturges didn't slightly regret agreeing to the studio's decision to add a musical score and aerial train footage at the opening instead of starting it as originally shot and cut with Spencer Tracy descending from the modern Streamliner into this desolate area with only the wind on the soundtrack. As released, the film's opening is the only overstated and theatrical aspect in an otherwise extremely lean and muscular film.
Tracy's performance, often recognized as one of his most interesting, does much to add to the overall tone. His John J. Macreedy is a man of few words, concealing his intentions as thoroughly as the useless hand he keeps stuffed in one pocket throughout the picture. Tracy, at least by this point (age 54, overweight, and more than 20 years into his film career), was no one's idea of an action hero. He had his own trepidation about it, realizing he was too old for the part and unsure if the lethal black belt karate skills his character was given would be convincing to an audience. But it's precisely this playing against expectations that makes his character so arresting. We don't know until very far into the movie exactly what he's doing in Black Rock. Until then, he's just a stranger in search of a Japanese farmer who has reputedly run away, and Macreedy becomes increasingly aware of the web of deception enveloping the town and the grave danger he's in. Precisely because he is so tight-lipped, polite, and dignified, and because the Cinemascope screen (a relatively new process effectively validated by Sturges and cinematographer William C. Mellor) conveys an oppressive sense of dread, when Macreedy does erupt into violence, it is startling and unsettling. And we pull for him to win, even though we don't know precisely what he wants, because the townspeople are such a hateful bunch - the brutal Ernest Borgnine; Lee Marvin, coldly menacing; conniving Anne Francis; spineless, cynical Dean Jagger; and Robert Ryan, etching another perfect characterization of madness lurking just below an apparently composed surface.
Perhaps a contemporary filmmaker could bring Bad Day at Black Rock into today's world with very little changes. Considering recent trends, it's not hard to imagine that if it were, the citizens of Black Rock would be turned into zombies. Filmmakers and their audiences have long been attracted to stories centered on an outsider reluctantly drawn into a difficult and dangerous conflict whose positive outcome is the advancement of civilization into wild and lawless territory. Tracy's character is very much in this tradition, and the almost surrealistically minimalist telling of this story, the mounting odds against him amid frightening isolation, and the actions necessary to survive it, is obviously an influence on many of today's horror films. That the outcome of this version of the reluctant hero motif remains uncertain once the outsider has done his job and moved on only makes it even more contemporary. Timelessness like that is one important element in making a film essential.
by Rob Nixon
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation passed by Congress that apologized to those Japanese Americans who had been interned in government camps during World War II, acknowledging that the action had been based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Eventually, more than $1.6 billion in reparations were given to former internees or their heirs.
Although not used as much today, the title Bad Day at Black Rock became a common catch phrase for a worst-case scenario.
MGM executive W.D. Kelly put out publicity about karate's growing popularity in America, and Arthur Godfrey included a demonstration on his morning television show.
James T. Aubrey, a former MGM executive, considered updating the story and remaking Bad Day at Black Rock in the 1990s, but it never came to pass.
Howard Breslin's original story, "Bad Day at Hondo," was used as the basis of another MGM film, Platinum High School (1960), in part an attempt to capitalize on the trend in juvenile delinquent movies. In this B-movie production, Mickey Rooney plays the Spencer Tracy character, this time as a father who goes to an exclusive boarding school located on an island (mirroring the isolation of Black Rock's setting) to investigate the suspicious death of his estranged son. Trapped on the island, he is threatened by the hostile head of the school (Dan Duryea in the Robert Ryan role) and his two henchmen (Richard Jaeckel and Christopher Ryan, standing in for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine). Terry Moore plays the school secretary and girlfriend of Duryea, who is modeled on Anne Francis's character in Bad Day at Black Rock.
The film had an influence on future movies about lone figures in hostile settings drawing on their considerableand surprisingcombat skills to defeat their enemies, including Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and the American film Billy Jack (1971). Director John Sturges, in turn, was influenced by Kurosawa, remaking the Japanese director's Seven Samurai (1954) as the Western The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The movie Conspiracy (2008) has a plot very similar to Bad Day at Black Rock, with Val Kilmer playing an ex-GI trying to figure out what happened to his friend, a Latino who has disappeared from his remote Arizona ranch.
In the movie Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney, 1996), Philip Baker Hall uses a line said by Spencer Tracy in this picture: "Sturdy sense of responsibility."
A spoof on the title became the name of a 1965 Tom and Jerry cartoon by Chuck Jones, Bad Day at Cat Rock.
A 2007 episode of the TV series Supernatural had the same title as this movie, without any apparent plot or thematic connection.
A 1968 episode of the TV sitcom Petticoat Junction was called "Bad Day at Shady Rest."
The title Bad Day at Black Rock became the name of an episode of the TV action series The A-Team.
Bad Day at Blackrock is a 2008 crime novel by Irish author Kevin Powers, based on the true story about three private school students who attacked and killed another young man outside a Dublin pub.
Since 1990, the town of Lone Pine, California, where Bad Day at Black Rock was filmed, holds an annual film festival showing only movies that were made there. The town, near the foot of Mount Whitney, has been the site of hundreds of productions since the early days of movies, including the Mary Pickford Pollyanna (1920), Von Stroheim's Greed (1924), A Star Is Born (1937), Gunga Din (1939), High Sierra (1941), Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), several Star Trek movies and TV episodes, Iron Man (2008), and of course, hundreds of Westerns. John Sturges made several other films there besides Black Rock, including The Walking Hills (1949), The Law and Jake Wade (1958), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), and Joe Kidd (1972), all of them Westerns.
According to the records of the screening room projector at the White House, Bad Day at Black Rock has become one of the most frequently shown films there.
by Rob Nixon
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Although the exact location of the title town is never mentioned in Bad Day at Black Rock, Millard Kaufman specified in his screenplay that it was in the desert 156 miles from Phoenix and 211 miles from Los Angeles.
Spencer Tracy lost the Academy Award for Best Actor for this year to his co-star and nemesis in Bad Day at Black Rock, Ernest Borgnine, for his first starring role, Marty (1955).
In the first two previews in October 1954, audiences did not respond well to the film. Comment cards noted that Tracy was too old for his part, the omission of any music was not a favorable aspect, and for the first ten minutes they were confused about what kind of picture it was supposed to be. Complaints were made about the pace, the volume of the ambient noise ("The wind...was as loud as the hurricane in The Caine Mutiny "), even the title. The final release version, with the added opening footage and musical score, was previewed in December, and response was markedly better: out of 168 viewers, only 13 said they wouldn't recommend the picture to a friend, compared to 25 percent of the first preview audience. The film fared much better at its New York preview a few days later. Market Research reported the audience was "spellbound" and that 92 percent would recommend it.
State censor boards and the Catholic Legion of Decency were unhappy about the karate fight in the cafe and the sequence where one of the characters is burned to death by a Molotov cocktail. Studio executive Robert Vogel countered the objections by noting the enthusiastic response to both scenes by preview audiences. The Legion of Decency finally passed the film as acceptable for adults and adolescents, and the New York Censor Board gave a seal of approval but wrote a letter to MGM cautioning the studio to avoid certain types of violence in the future, particularly the mix of sex and violence they said was coming into the country with imported European films.
Bad Day at Black Rock was released on January 7, 1955, to very good critical reception. According to Sturges, however, it was not a big financial success. After 25 weeks in theaters in the U.S. and Canada, it had still not broken even, and had only inched up a little in box office receipts a year later. Just days before opening, Dore Schary announced there would be a sequel that would bring Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan back to show "the restoration of morale" in the town. After the picture failed to capture a big audience, the plan was quietly dropped.
After seeing the film, the head of MGM's parent company, Nicholas Schenck, who studio chief Dore Schary claimed was initially opposed to the project, told Schary he was glad they made it.
"God he was a master. What a master!" Ernest Borgnine on Spencer Tracy
"Bad Day wanted to be made. Before the camera ever rolled or construction even started on the little town, everything fell into place, and it was all right on. Meaningful story, flawless script and casteverything.... And as a bonus we had full wide-screen photography-one of the very first. The background of stark mountains, huge Streamliner train, barren deserts, all became players in the story, integrated into the mystery and violence of its theme. I don't see how anyone could have blown directing this picture, but if they had, they should have shot me - not Komoko." director John Sturges, responding to Danny Peary's positive essay about the film on the Criterion Collection web site
Of all his films, Sturges remained proudest of Bad Day at Black Rock.
Tracy left the country right after the Oscars®, and when he came back to work at the studio, Borgnine went to see him. Tracy berated him for not having answered the congratulatory telegram he sent after the awards. Katharine Hepburn stuck her head out of Tracy's trailer and told him, "He won the Oscar®, not you, you dummy." Borgnine and Tracy had a good chuckle over that.
Bad Day at Black Rock marked the end of Spencer Tracy's long association with MGM, where he first signed on as a contract player in 1935. In the summer of 1955, he began work on another film at the studio called "Jeremy Rodock," a script that had caught his attention some time earlier. The picture began shooting in the mountains near Montrose, California, but Tracy left after disagreements with director Robert Wise. Furthermore, he said the high altitudes were a strain on him and insisted the sets be rebuilt at a lower altitude. On June 25, only a few weeks into production, he was removed from the cast. He never made another film for the studio. The picture was completed with James Cagney in the lead and released as Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).
John Sturges started in the business as a film editor at RKO. In the mid-40s, he moved to Columbia, where he directed several B-picture crime dramas and quickly built a reputation for taut action and suspense movies. His first Western was a Randolph Scott picture, The Walking Hills (1949). He first worked with Spencer Tracy in the legal drama The People Against O'Hara (1951). After Bad Day at Black Rock, they worked together once more on The Old Man and the Sea (1958), based on the Hemingway novel. Tracy received another Oscar® nomination for that role. Sturges's other notable films include Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963).
Although never quite a major star, Robert Ryan had a long career of solid performances and successful movies, earning him much critical praise for his range and intensity. He is most remembered today for a number of roles in which he played unstable and/or menacing characters: Crossfire (1947, Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), Caught (1949), Beware, My Lovely (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and Billy Budd (1962). Later in his career, he became a figure of no-nonsense military authority: The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967). He worked with Sturges again as Ike Clanton in the director's sequel to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hour of the Gun (1967). He had memorable roles in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and his final role in a screen adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play The Iceman Cometh (1973), which starred his Black Rock henchman Lee Marvin (who also appeared in The Dirty Dozen). Ryan's performance won him a Best Actor award (tied with Al Pacino for Serpico, 1973) from the National Board of Review. He also received a posthumous Special Award from the National Society of Film Critics in 1974.
Ernest Borgnine was directed by John Sturges again in Ice Station Zebra (1955). He co-starred with Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan again in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and with Ryan in The Wild Bunch (1969).
Anne Francis has been in hundreds of movies and television shows since her debut at the age of 17 in an uncredited bit as a bobby-soxer in the Esther Williams movie This Time for Keeps (1947). Among her most memorable appearances are Blackboard Jungle (1955), the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956), and the hit mid-60s private eye TV series Honey West, which earned her a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination.
In addition to his Academy Award nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock, screenwriter Millard Kaufman was also nominated for a military comedy-drama, Take the High Ground! (1953) starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden. Kaufman fronted for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo on Deadly Is the Female/Gun Crazy (1950); in 1992 he officially requested the Writers Guild remove his name from the credits and restore Trumbo's. Kaufman's other credits include the screenplay for the Civil War drama Raintree County (1957) and co-creating the cartoon character Mr. Magoo in the late 1940s.
A decade after the film's release, Kaufman was awarded by the Japanese government for treating its people with uncommon dignity. "The whole thing was absurd because there were no Japanese in the movie," Kaufman said. "But I knew what they meant."
Don McGuire, credited for his adaptation of the original source material for Bad Day at Black Rock, was also an actor (mostly bit parts in films during the 1940s and 50s), producer and director (motion pictures and television). He was nominated for an Academy Award, shared with Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, for the screenplay of Tootsie (1982).
Cinematographer William C. Mellor won Academy Awards for his work on A Place in the Sun (1951) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). His other notable films include the Anthony Mann Western The Naked Spur (1953), Giant (1956), and several episodes of the Ozzie and Harriet TV series. He died of a heart attack in 1963 on the set of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); the film was completed by Loyal Griggs
by Rob Nixon
Memorable Quotes from BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
JOHN J. MACREEDY: I'll only be here 24 hours.
CONDUCTOR: In a place like this, that can be a lifetime.
STATIONMASTER: First time the Streamliner's stopped here in four years.
DOC VELIE: He's no salesman, that's for sure. Unless he's peddling dynamite.
RENO SMITH: Japanese farmer. Never had a chance. Got here in 41 just before Pearl Harbor. Three months later, shipped him off to a relocation center.
COLEY TRIMBLE: You could get yourself killed like that, nosin' all over the countryside.
LIZ WIRTH: What do you care about Black Rock?
MACREEDY: I don't care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren't many towns like this in America. But one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can't seem to find a handle to.
LIZ: You don't know what you're talking about.
MACREEDY: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here and the guerrillas have taken over.
SMITH: I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to make you mad.
SAM, CAFE OWNER: What'll you have?
MACREEDY: What have you got?
SAM: Chili with beans.
MACREEDY: What else have you got?
SAM: Chili without beans.
TRIMBLE: You're a yellow-belly Jap lover, am I right or wrong?
MACREEDY: You're not only wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice.
CONDUCTOR: First time the Streamliner's stopped here in four years.
MACREEDY (boarding): Second time.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Bad Day at Black Rock began as a short story, "Bad Day at Hondo," by novelist and radio writer Howard Breslin, writing under the pseudonym Michael Niall. Some sources list the title as "Bad Time at Hondo" and others give the fictional locale as "Honda."
Although largely a thriller about one man coming up against the hostile citizens of a remote town, the story's background was based on the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in the Western U.S. following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The executive order that allowed the military to round up people of Japanese descent, most of whom had been born and raised in the U.S., was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. The decision met with little public dissent, in no small part because of hostility toward the growing Japanese immigrant population on the West Coast during the first half of the 20th century. Similar to anti-Latino sentiment prevalent in our own time, the new arrivals were seen as taking farm and labor jobs away from "Americans." Couched in national security terms, the action has been seen in the years since as clearly motivated more by racism.
In Breslin's original story, the Japanese farmer was not murdered directly but died of a heart attack the night the locals burned down his house to run him out of town.
Actor-writer Don McGuire came across the story in a 1946 issue of American Magazine and was attracted to how it dealt tangentially with something that had never been acknowledged on screen, the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. McGuire optioned the story for $15,000 and wrote an adaptation. Director Don Siegel, then at Allied Artists, read it and thought it was the finest screenplay he had read up to that point. He interested Joel McCrea in it, but the studio passed on it.
McGuire took it to Dore Schary, now head of MGM and a producer with a reputation for "message" films. Schary had also publicly spoken out against the Japanese interment camps during the war. "[Schary] liked the idea of dealing with the persecution of Japanese Americans in the so-called Wild West, that stronghold of democracy where the deer and the antelope play," noted MGM contract screenwriter Millard Kaufman.
As 1953 came close to an end, Schary was desperate to find a project quickly for Spencer Tracy, something the actor would agree to. He consulted Kaufman about Breslin's story as a possible vehicle. Schary liked what he later referred to as "a combination of toughness and hard intellectuality" in the former marine turned screenwriter. Kaufman read both the story and McGuire's screenplay and pronounced them both "terrible," but agreed to try to fashion it into something Tracy would agree to do.
Tracy not only thought the short story was terrible but was insulted that Schary even dared to consider it for him. "I'm supposed to be the best male actor in America," Tracy said, and promptly informed Schary exactly what he could do with the idea.
According to Kaufman, part of Schary's ploy to hook Tracy was to send the script to Alan Ladd's agent, who turned it down. Nevertheless, Schary told Tracy that Ladd was interested in it and that was enough to get Tracy to read the script and half-heartedly agree to make the picture.
Kaufman claimed Tracy was dead set against the project until Schary came up with the idea of giving the lead character only one usable arm. "I never knew an actor who could resist playing a cripple," Schary said, according to Kaufman. In his autobiography, Schary told the story a little differently, claiming Tracy had already tentatively approved the script but was concerned about his proposed role having no real character. Whatever the true sequence of events, apparently the one-armed man idea was what hooked Tracy. He also thought at age 54 he was too old for the role of the platoon leader who had just emerged from the war - he was - but the idea of using judo/karate (it was becoming more widely popular in the U.S. at the time) to take down much younger and apparently tougher men, eased his concerns.
Kaufman made substantial changes to both McGuire's and Breslin's originals. (After contentious negotiations, McGuire settled for an adaptation credit.) Kaufman kept the theme of anti-Japanese violence and the time setting (shortly after V-J Day) but compressed the action into a single 24-hour period. He also wrote into the script a description of the town that would guide the cinematic approach to the story: "Town and terrain seem to be trapped, caught and held forever in the sullen, abrasive Earth." The lead character was provided with a new mission, to deliver a medal for bravery to the Japanese-American father of a fallen member of his platoon. Kaufman also created the chief nemesis character, the rancher Reno Smith.
The town of the title was changed from Hondo because there was already a John Wayne Western called Hondo (1953). At first, it was called Parma, but during a road trip that Kaufman took with a location scout they came across a tiny town which was barely an intersection in the highway called Black Rock and decided that would be the name.
Relations between Schary and Nicholas Schenck, head of MGM's parent company, were already very strained at this time. In his autobiography, Schary claimed Schenck ordered him to take Bad Day at Black Rock off the schedule, largely because the very conservative Schenck didn't like Schary's liberal politics, his propensity for issue movies, and the notion of making a film about anti-Japanese sentiment. When Schary refused, a shouting match broke out between the two. Schary told Schenck to fire him if he didn't have faith in his decision and threatened to quit if Schenck ordered the production halted. Schenck reluctantly let the matter rest, and Schary continued working on the project. The veracity of this version is debatable. According to John Sturges, who would eventually direct, there was never any resistance to the film. "Most people by that time sort of recognized the snap judgment of interning the Japanese Americans was wrong and done without justification," Sturges said.
Initially Charles Schnee was assigned as producer and George Sidney was announced as director. However, Sidney never began the assignment for reasons unknown, so Richard Brooks, another ex-marine with whom Kaufman had worked on Take the High Ground! (1953), was hired instead as director, thanks to his reputation for tough issue films, such as Crossfire (1947), about anti-Semitism, and Storm Warning (1951), about Klan violence.
Brooks had started as a writer and took great pride in his abilities, and when Kaufman's screenplay for their film Take the High Ground! got an Academy Award nomination while Brooks got neither recognition for his direction nor writing credit, he wasn't pleased. So during the first story conference the two had on Bad Day at Black Rock, he told Kaufman he would participate in the writing and expect co-screenplay credit. Kaufman agreed, providing Brooks actually did half the work.
Brooks quickly caused problems for the project by calling Spencer Tracy and telling him not to expect much out of this "piece of sh*t," although he and Kaufman would try to make it work somehow. Tracy immediately called Schary, who ordered Brooks into his office for a confrontation that included producer Charles Schnee and associate producer Herman Hoffman. An incensed Schnee, small as he was, challenged Brooks to a fistfight and ended up walking off the production. Later, Schary said he had approached MGM producers Pandro Berman and Sam Zimbalist to take on the production, but they both said no, and his other choice, John Houseman, was busy with Executive Suite (1954), so he decided to produce it himself.
The first thing Schary did was fire Brooks and hire John Sturges, who had worked very well with Tracy on The People Against O'Hara (1951). Sturges had no patience for front office politics. "He had that kind of sociality that was lacking in so many who were protecting their rears in the business," Kaufman said, who was happy to see Brooks go because "He was constantly and brilliantly kissing Dore's ass." Sturges told Schary, "I'll do it if you leave me alone."
With all these problems, Black Rock generated some negative press as being hopelessly stalled, which spurred Kaufman on with even more determination. "I wrote the damn thing in three weeks because I thought it would never be made. Not because of its political content, which I thought was negligible, but simply because it had this history of fights and giving bad luck a workout."
Sturges didn't get very involved in the screenplay process mainly because he was so pleased with Kaufman's work. "If you've got a script, making a picture is really fun," he said. "Black Rockbest script I ever had. It was a walk in the sun." Nevertheless, he spent as much time as he could with Kaufman talking about the picture. In fact, right after they were introduced, he insisted that Kaufman join him while he went shopping for clothes so they could discuss the project in further detail.
As was his habit, Kaufman tuned out everything else in his life, including his family, when he was in preproduction on Bad Day at Black Rock. "His ability to focus was scary," his daughter later commented.
by Rob Nixon
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
The Bad Day at Black Rock production was budgeted at $1.3 million.
This was the first MGM film to be shot in Cinemascope. According to director John Sturges's commentary track on the Criterion Laserdisc release, it was also filmed at the same time in the standard 4:3 ratio version because studio executives still weren't sure how well the wide screen format would work. That version was never released.
It was decided to build the town set and shoot on location at Lone Pine, one of the most used locations for Westerns and other pictures throughout film history. The area, at the foot of Mount Whitney on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas, was deemed suitable for its remoteness and the fact that it had an unused stretch of track that once connected it to Los Angeles; this was a must for the opening and closing sequences featuring the arrival and departure of the Streamliner.
Southern Pacific railway agreed to run the train to Lone Pine for $5,500 and the cost of 265 round-trip passenger tickets. According to Sturges, the train had to be run backwardslight cars first, engine in the rearand slowly, due to concerns about some old bridges, taking about 18 hours to get there from the city.
Ironically, the location was just seven miles from Manzanar Relocation Camp, where 10,000 Japanese Americans had been interned during World War II.
The Bad Day at Black Rock shoot was scheduled for late June through early July to avoid Lone Pine's August highs of 115 and the oppressive humidity that moves in during the month. During the 21 days on location, the temperature climbed to over 100 degrees at times.
It was decided that Bad Day at Black Rock would have no music score, only ambient soundsclock chimes, prairie winds, etc.a method that had been employed on MGM's Executive Suite (1954). Schary described the vision in his autobiography: "First the quiet speck of a station in the heart of desolation. A wind blowing, a yowl of coyote, the far-off-horn of a diesel engine, then the roar of the train. The music department hated me."
The shooting script called for "loafers" (onlookers, bystanders, etc.) but Sturges kept removing them, preferring to accent the town's desolation with a minimal cast of characters. He kept removing background extrasa woman hanging out her laundry, someone driving bybut did shoot a few scenes that had incidental extras, such as a boy called TJ.
Spencer Tracy insisted on wearing clothes throughout the film that he bought himself off the rack. He thought nothing the wardrobe department showed him was worn enough, so he went to a discount store in downtown Los Angeles and bought two identical suits.
Tracy used to go off by himself into the desert and read the whole script aloud two or three times until he really understood what the picture was about.
Assistant Director Joel Freeman said Tracy was the only cast member who was not fully cooperative on set. He told Sturges to avoid close-ups (probably because of his age) and hated to do additional takes. In the garage sequence between him and Robert Ryan, Sturges called for a second take. Tracy asked the crew if they had understood him in the scene. When they said yes, he refused to shoot it again. Sturges remained patient, however, and accommodated the star as he had on their previous picture, The People Against O'Hara (1951). "With Spence, you could print his first rehearsal," he said, noting that he never had to tell his star how to play a scene.
Tracy had a hard time with the heat and altitude, exacerbated by his high blood pressure and, according to co-star Anne Francis, being on the wagon, which she said "added to his irritability."
The heat left everyone exhausted, "too damn hot to party," in Ernest Borgnine's words, but Tracy invited everyone to his hotel room for cocktail hour every day, even though he drank only 7-Up. (The alcoholic actor usually abstained while working but often went on binges after a production wrapped.)
Two cast members who didn't get along at all, largely for political reasons, were the liberal Tracy and the archconservative Walter Brennan, who made the mistake of criticizing Katharine Hepburn's public outspokenness against the McCarthy hearings in Congress. The next day, during blocking of one scene, the two (playing allies in the picture) weren't speaking and relayed their brittle and sniping communications through director Sturges. Brennan later taunted Tracy by walking by holding up three fingers, an indication of his three Academy Awards (for Best Supporting Actor) versus Tracy's two Best Actor Oscars®.
Although he generally got along with the rest of the cast, Tracy could be moody and would give other actors the cold shoulder for days over some slight, real or imagined. One time, Anne Francis and Robert Ryan borrowed his car to get hamburgers. The next morning Tracy complained the car was parked crookedly. Francis also said she got the silent treatment because Tracy falsely suspected her of having an affair with Ryan. Francis got even during the shooting of the scene where she drives Tracy's character to Adobe Flats (home of the missing Japanese farmer). She gunned the car and took a big road bump at full speed, almost dumping her co-star in the road; despite this, he stayed firmly in character and never removed his unusable left hand from his pocket. She later said Tracy became friendly with her again after that incident.
Tracy had great respect for Robert Ryan as an actor. Kaufman recalled Tracy said to him one day, "Bob is so good in this part, he scares the hell out of me." When Kaufman expressed the same, Tracy replied, "That's good. It means he'll scare the hell out of the audience, too."
Sturges had scheduled an entire day for the scene in which Tracy's character tries to find out from Ryan's what happened to the Japanese farmer. The two were so good, however, that shooting was completed by nine in the morning. An amazed Sturges called for a print and started to move on to another set-up, but Tracy stopped him, insisting the schedule called only for the one scene that day. "Bob, let's take off," he said to Ryan, and the two left the set, forcing Sturges to try to shoot around Tracy, who was in nearly every scene.
Borgnine always referred to Tracy as "Mr. Tracy," never by his first name. "I was in awe of him," he said. "To me, he was the world's greatest actor, and my God, here I am working with the man."
The most difficult action sequences of Bad Day at Black Rock were shot first. The car chase between Borgnine and Tracy, inspired by Sturges's memory of almost being run off the road by a drunk driver in college, took two days. The climactic nighttime ambush took a day and a half. The scene, photographed at night with every available light, employed explosive caps to ignite Robert Ryan's stunt double after he's hit with a Molotov cocktail. The double was smeared with petroleum jelly and outfitted in a protective asbestos suit and gloves, but he made the mistake of inhaling and scorched his lungs. Screaming for help, he was rushed to the hospital but back on set the next day, in some pain but more frightened about the prospect of almost being suffocated.
Initially, the aftermath of the ambush was to have Ryan's body strapped to the front of Tracy's car, a deliberate irony playing on the character's reputation as a hunter. But Sturges decided it was too self-conscious.
With location work completed, the Bad Day at Black Rock production returned to the studio in August to shoot interiors.
The showdown between Tracy's and Borgnine's characters in the cafe was done with stunt doubles. Tracy refused to do it himself because, as he warned Sturges, he had been known to get too involved in fight scenes on previous productions and neglected to pull his punches properly, breaking one actor's jaw and knocking another's teeth out (Tracy's age and illness likely had something to do with his refusal in this case, too). Sturges decided to shoot the sequence in full frame with minimal cuts and reverse angles. But he was not happy with Tracy's double, stunt driver Cary Lofton. The nature of the fight had to be toned down a bit, too, thanks to Production Code restrictions on violence. The script has Tracy's character first give his nemesis a sharp karate chop to the neck, sending him gasping and reeling, then against the nose, shattering it and spilling blood all over him as he sinks into unconsciousness. Instead, the chop was restrained, resulting in a slight nose bleed, and when Borgnine's incensed character rushes in again, he gets a couple more chops to the stomach and neck that sends him reeling through the building's screen door.
Borgnine did the crash through the door himself, expecting it to swing open as he sailed through it into the street. But without the actor's knowledge, Sturges nailed the door shut. The momentum ripped it from its hinges, and it ended up hanging on the understandably shocked Borgnine like a picture frame which provided the desired natural reaction from the actor. "Borgnine has never forgiven me for that," Sturges recalled.
When Tracy saw the rushes, he thought the fight was preposterous. He didn't believe his character could disable his enemy that quickly and easily until Sturges showed the footage to a Marine instructor who not only confirmed the effectiveness of the karate method but told Tracy the blow as executed would have killed his opponent in real life.
"Tracy is great in that [fight] scene," Sturges later noted (in Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges by Glenn Lovell). "Up until he hits Borgnine, he's polite, apologizes for things. He's purely reactive. I learned that from George Stevens's Giant . James Dean didn't do anything but react to all the things that are done to him. Shane , too. Ladd doesn't do anything until the end of the picture when he's forced to return.... Spence knew all this. That's why he was such a good actor." Despite Sturges's generosity toward a fellow director after the fact, it's hard to see how Giant could have influenced this film since Stevens's movie wasn't even released until nearly two years after Black Rock.
Sturges did credit Stevens with advice that he said made for compelling compositions that were ideal for the widescreen process. "[Stevens] taught me...always have a backup location, don't commit; stage according to what you see." That method, he said, allows for serendipitous shots that are never specified in the script but add much to the mood and dynamic of a film. "That's why I never used storyboards, like Hitchcock. You do that, you're committed to a shot." He did, however, do rough sketches of actor and camera placements and diagram the meeting between Reno Smith and the others at the tracks, according to Lovell.
The principal photography on Bad Day at Black Rock wrapped in late August. Sturges felt good about the shoot and later said he never doubted that it would be an outstanding film.
The movie had three previews in the fall of 1954. The first two screened the film as originally conceived, without the aerial train shots or opening music that were later added, beginning with a shot of Tracy stepping off the Streamliner train and walking down Main Street of Black Rock, accompanied only by the sound of the wind. There was also a cutaway to the depot clock, as in High Noon (1952), the movie to which this is most often compared. Many in the audience at the first preview thought the opening was too abrupt and at least 25 percent of them commented that they wouldn't recommend the picture to anyone (this percentage was higher among women viewers). Bad Day at Black Rock faired slightly better in the second preview, but it was clear the picture wasn't working without music and no lead-in to the opening scene in the remote town. Associate producer Herman Hoffman came up with the idea of beginning with aerial shots of the train speeding through the desert.
Sturges had already moved on to his next film, The Scarlet Coat (1955), so Hoffman took charge of filming the opening. The plan was to shoot the train hurtling toward the audience, almost like a 3-D movie. But it would have been deadly to attempt a helicopter maneuver into the path of a speeding locomotive. Stunt flier Paul Mantz offered the perfect solution: have the train running backwards, fly the copter over the retreating engine, then project the footage in reverse. "It's a helluva shot," Sturges later said, "but I didn't make it."
It was also decided to add a score after all to Bad Day at Black Rock, and MGM music supervisor Johnny Green suggested Andre Previn, who started at the studio as an arranger at the age of 16 and by this time, eight years later, had already contributed to the scores of 16 pictures in almost every style and genre. Dore Schary indicated he wanted "something loud, throbbing, and martial in undertone" for the opening. After watching the film, Previn came up with what we hear on the soundtrack today, the "vaguely dissonant and sinister score" played by brass instruments.
by Rob Nixon
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Director John Sturges was a master of suspenseful, well-crafted westerns and action/adventure films. And Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), the story of a hate crime in a small western town, and the bullying attempts by some townspeople to keep an outsider from finding out, certainly fits comfortably into those boundaries. That it also transcends them is not surprising, given the film's history.
Bad Day at Black Rock was made at a time of professional and political upheaval in Hollywood. In 1951, Dore Schary had replaced Louis B. Mayer as head of MGM. Schary, politically liberal, produced "message pictures" reflecting his beliefs. This was the era of blacklisting, of the McCarthy witch-hunts, when even the hint of communist affiliation could destroy careers. Bad Day at Black Rock's contemporary western was the kind of allegory that Schary liked. In fact, he liked it so much that Schary himself replaced Charles Schnee as producer. Richard Brooks, no stranger to message pictures, was set to direct.
Now that the film was shaping up to be an "important" picture, Schary needed a heavyweight star to play John MacReedy, the World War II veteran who stands up to the town. He went after Spencer Tracy, who was reluctant. What finally clinched Tracy was an excellent script revision by Millard Kaufman...and Schary's lie that Alan Ladd was interested in the role.
To keep Tracy happy, Schary also replaced Brooks with John Sturges, who had directed Tracy in The People Against O'Hara (1951). Sturges brought his talent for suspense and action, his skill at choreographing violence, and his eye for casting to Bad Day at Black Rock. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin both received career boosts from the film. Borgnine's next film, Marty(1955), won him an Oscar -- beating Tracy, who was nominated for Bad Day at Black Rock.
Bad Day at Black Rock was a commercial and critical success. Reviews at the time praised its message of civic responsibility, individual integrity, and the dangers of group complacency. Film historians now also see it as an indictment of the blacklist in Hollywood.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Dore Schary, Herman Hoffman
Screenplay: Millard Kaufman
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editor: Newell P. Kimlin
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Sheriff Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc T.R. Velie Jr).
C-82m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Margarita Landazuri
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Awards & Honors
Bad Day at Black Rock won Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Director (John Sturges), and Screenplay (Millard Kaufman)
Other honors included:
British Academy Award nominations for Best Film and United Nations Award
Winner of Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Award (Tracy) and nominee for Golden Palm (Sturges)
Directors Guild of America nomination to John Sturges
Writers Guild of America nomination to Millard Kaufman
It was included on the New York Times Ten Best Movies list for 1955 and named one of the Best American Films by the National Board of Review
The Critics Corner: BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
"That rare but rewarding thing, an intelligent Western. ... With CinemaScope and Eastman Color [Sturges] makes Black Rock by turns ugly and attractive, and, at each turn, quite out of any civilized world. His drama is cool as a knife blade."
Newsweek, January 1955
"Spencer Tracy, the rock-firm, middle-aged stranger, acts with enormous conviction in a well-nigh perfect performance."
Charlotte Bilkey Speicher, Library Journal, January 1, 1955
"Spencer Tracy gives a masterful performance as the mysterious stranger."
Philip T. Hartung, Commonweal, January 14, 1955
"Lee Marvin is alarmingly mean as a steely, easy-going plotter....Robert Ryan, as the chief villain, has some fine scenes with Tracy, who is at his best."
Time, January 17, 1955
"The menace of these swaggering desert roughnecks is nonetheless creeping and cold. And the battle that Mr. Tracy puts up to save his hide is dramatically taut. When he comes out, it is obvious that not only valor but justice has prevailed."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, February 2, 1955
"The obvious picture of comparison is High Noon . Both are suspense thrillers with an evident moral; both center upon the behavior of a man isolated by mortal danger; both work toward a blazing climax through an atmosphere of hair-trigger calm. The new picture is the better by a variety of measurements. Spencer Tracy offers a more complex, contradictory, witty, and therefore more interesting interpretation than did Gary Cooper."
Robert Hatch, Nation, February 19, 1955
"Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory. Besides telling a yarn of tense suspense, the picture is concerned with a social message on civic complacency....There's not a bad performance from any member of the cast, each socking their characters for full value."
"This is one of the finest motion pictures ever made. ... You are a victim of suspense, and you are not an easy victim because you feel yourself not to be a person in an audience, but a spectator in the action at Black Rock. You feel the heat and aridity of the desert; you want to know what shameful thing is eating the inhabitants of this town. And above all you want to know what's going to happen."
novelist John O'Hara, 1956
"Though Bad Day at Black Rock is crudely melodramatic, it is a very superior example of motion picture craftsmanship. The director, John Sturges, is at his besteach movement and line is exact and economical; the cinematographer, William C. Mellor, uses CinemaScope and color with intelligent carethe compositions seem realistic, yet they have a stylized simplicity. In part because of this, when the violence erupts, it's truly shocking."
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Company, 1982)
"I love everything about this filmthe little guy in the black suit with his hand in his pocket, the aura of dread...the bar fight. That's probably the best bar fight ever. It's a thriller that's about everything." director William Friedkin
"Nicely put together by Sturges, its suspense derives largely from the excellent performances and imaginative use of the 'Scope frame by cameraman William C. Mellor."
Geoff Andrew, Time Out, January 26, 2006
"Although Bad Day at Black Rock is a film about racial prejudice against Japanese Americans, no Japanese Americans actually appear on screen. True to the formula of the Hollywood social problem film, the film centers on a heroic white male character exposing bigotry, hegemonically asserting that white patriarchal capitalist culture is a cure for racism, and not a cause."
Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003)
by Rob Nixon