Don’t Mess With the One-armed Man

Bad Day at Black Rock, written by Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire, based on the story by Howard Breslin; directed by John Sturges; starring Spencer Tracy (John Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), Lee Marvin (Hector David) and Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble) (1955): Great, terse, tense showdown movie of the 1950’s that can be read (like High Noon) as a parable of the Red Scare and its attendant McCarthyism.

It’s late 1945, and Spencer Tracy’s Macreedy is a WW2 vet of the Italian campaign looking to give a posthumous medal to the father of the Japanese-American soldier who died saving his life (though not his left arm). So Macreedy comes to the small Southwestern desert town of Black Rock by train (a train that hasn’t stopped there in four years), only to discover that the soldier’s father is missing and the town itself is run by criminal Reno Smith.

The action that ensues over the next 24 hours (or 82 minutes of film time) sees the initially depressed and passive Macreedy eventually rediscover his will to live — and his contempt for bullies, cowards, and murderers. The aging, overweight Tracy initially seems like an unlikely action hero, but he eventually shows why you don’t mess with Spencer Tracy. And that includes you, Ernest Borgnine!

The direction by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) is taut, setting the growing suspense against the widescreen Cinemascope background of the desert, the distant mountains, and the sky. The writing is solid and understated. The acting throughout is superb, with a lot of solid actors old (Tracy, Walter Brennan as the town doctor, Dean Jagger as the browbeaten sheriff, and Ryan) and fairly young (Borgnine, Anne Francis and Lee Marvin). Unlike High Noon, this film allows the growing heroism of its protagonist to effectively rally the decent people of the town to him. It’s an interesting contrast to observe. Highly recommended.

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