While best known for Spencer Tracy’s use of a karate chop against a hulking young Ernest Borgnine, Bad Day at Black Rock is not a martial arts film. A stark examination of the American class system, it addresses two important political issues. To what degree are Americans complicit in their own oppression? If the United States went to war to fight the Nazis, then why did it build concentration camps for Japanese Americans?
As the film opens, World War II veteran John J. Macreedy, Spencer Tracy, gets off the “Streamliner,” a luxury passenger train, at the tiny California desert town of Black Rock. The station master and telegraph operator is astonished. Black Rock is a desolate little strip on a cul de sac deep inside Sam Shepherd country. The Streamliner hasn’t stopped there in four years. When Macreedy asks about where he can get a taxi cab to a place called Yucca Flats, astonishment turns into hostility, bad hostility, the same kind of hostility that would greet civil rights workers who went to the deep south in 1964 to register black voters.
Macreedy, who has come to Black Rock to deliver a medal the father of a Japanese American soldier he served with in the Italian campaign, soon realizes that his life is in danger. While he was in the army fighting fascism in Italy, the local elite in Black Rock used a racist murder to stage what was, in effect, a fascist coup. Komoko, the father of Macreedy’s friend, is dead, murdered by a drunken mob on the day after Pearl Harbor. In order to cover up his crime, the leader of the mob, a local bigwig named Reno Smith, has established a dictatorship over the little desert town. Nobody speaks without his permission. He hires and fires sheriffs at will. He keeps two hulking thugs on the payroll just in case anybody gets out of line. Reno Smith is the Mussolini of Black Rock, a big fish in a tiny little pond.
John J. Macreedy is no Dirty Harry. He’s a mild-mannered old man who lets himself get bullied rather than fight back. But once he finds Komoko’s grave at Yucca Flats, he has no choice. Since the Streamliner won’t make another stop until the next morning, he has to find someone who can drive him out of town before Reno Smith has him killed.
After Macreedy realizes that there are people in Black Rock, an old undertaker played by Walter Brennan, the Sheriff played by Dean Jagger, and possibly a young hotel clerk and his sister who are weak rather than evil, Bad Day at Black Rock becomes a film about the idea of democracy vs. fascism. If Macreedy can spark a revolution inside the desolate little strip, he will live. If he fails, he dies. It’s just that simple. Unless the people of Black Rock liberate themselves from Reno Smith’s iron hand, he ends up in a grave at Yucca Flats right next to Komoko.
The climatic scene of Bad Day at Black Rock might have the quickest, and most subtle transition from day to night that I’ve ever seen in a film. Liz Worth, the young sister of the hotel clerk has agreed to drive Macreedy to the state police in the next town, 30 miles away. Throughout the movie, she has been alternately sympathetic and hostile. Macreedy thinks he has finally won her over. But he hasn’t. She’s setting him up for the kill. Her lover, Reno Smith is waiting in the darkness. John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock’s director, knows pacing and character. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. The mild mannered veteran turns into an action hero. Macreedy survives with the help of an improvised Molotov Cocktail. Liz Wirth isn’t so lucky. Treacherous loyalty to a fascist regime inevitably means physical as well as spiritual death. The film ends with Macreedy getting on the Streamliner back to civilization, Reno Smith on his way to jail, and Liz Wirth on the slab at the morgue.
What makes Bad Day at Black Rock all the more remarkable is that it was filmed in 1955, at the height of the red scare, long before Ronald Reagan signed the apology to Japanese Americans for Executive Order 9066. It looks into the dark heart of American evil as directly as any film since William J. Wellman’s The Ox Bow Incident. Why can’t courageous, politically radical films like this get made today?