Directed By: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis
Tag line: "They're going to kill you...with no hard feelings!"
Trivia: Don Siegel called the screenplay for this movie the best one he had ever read (to that point) and lobbied unsuccessfully to direct the film
Throughout his award-winning career, Spencer Tracy played everything from sympathetic fathers (Father of the Bride, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and kind-hearted priests (Boys Town) to well-respected lawyers (Inherit the Wind) and judges (Judgment at Nuremberg). He even appeared (along with Katherine Hepburn) in a series of romantic comedies (Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year) that are today regarded as classics of the genre. But as he showed us in director John Sturges’ 1955 crime / western, Bad Day at Black Rock, ‘ole Spence could also kick some ass when he needed to.
Tracy stars as John J. Macreedy, a WWII vet who lost the use of his left arm during the war. Looking to visit the father of an old army buddy, he takes a train to the small Arizona town of Black Rock, but from the moment he arrives there, it’s clear the locals are none too pleased to have him around. Treated with hostility everywhere he goes, Macreedy seeks the help of the town’s sheriff (Dean Jagger), only to discover that, in Black Rock, the law is laid down by a man named Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), who, along with everyone else in this tiny desert community, is hiding a secret so terrible that they’re willing to kill to protect it.
Even with one arm, Tracy’s Macreedy is a force to be reckoned with, a well-trained soldier who is perfectly capable of defending himself in any situation. And it’s a good thing too, because in Black Rock, he’s up against some tough hombres, including Hector (Lee Marvin) and Coley (Ernest Borgnine), two of Reno’s goons who make the mistake of thinking their new “guest” is a pushover (Coley learns his lesson the hard way when Macreedy tosses him from one end of the local saloon to the other). With an air of confidence that never wavers, Tracy gives the impression that his character, regardless of his handicap, is always in control.
A simmering, suspenseful mystery that plays out under the hot desert sun, Bad Day at Black Rock is an underrated crime thriller, and features a main character who’s a long way removed from your typical cinematic hero.