Sort of a western film noir. The dusty desert town is just as forbidding as the gritty urban film noir settings. The mystery involves how Spencer Tracy’s McReady will survive to tell the tale of the murder in Black Rock.
Robert Ryan as Reno Smith is the ringleader of the group (with Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin) who killed a Japanese-American farmer during WWII. The rest of the townspeople are conflicted; they’re afraid to reveal the town’s secret to McReady, and try to deflect his questions about the victim.
It’s very much like a crime boss controlling a city; the townspeople are weak and seemingly apathetic. After McReady decks Borgnine, showing that the bad guys aren’t so tough after all, Walter Brennan’s Doc takes the lead turning the tables against Smith.
The only issue I have with the premise is that it’s much easier to accept that a bunch of desert yokels, living in what’s essentially a ghost town, can be racist murderers. Of course, it’s the setting and characters that give Bad Day At Black Rock its iconic feel. McReady in his suit has a sort of mythic stature compared to the locals with their well-worn cowboy gear.
Smith’s red cap is about the only definite color we see in the town; no one really seems very much alive. It’s as though the crime has stunted or gutted the spirit of the place. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, despite the wide-open spaces. For dramatic purposes, however, it might’ve been interesting too see a more typical early post-war setting–maybe in a bigger town or suburb. The result of the all-encompassing scenery makes for a good vs. evil contest that’s a bit too obvious.
There’s more to see than the sand and dust, though. The great cast gives us Ryan’s flair for edgy, unsteady villains, Borgnine’s smarmy bully character, Marvin’s laconic creepiness, and Tracy’s steady, quiet strength. Brennan is surprisingly good; for once he’s not playing a hapless fool.
A Bad Day At Black Rock is a unique movie with a lot to like. As others have said, nothing is wasted. Well worth more than one viewing. 9/10.