Bad Day at Black Rock

Director: John  Sturges


“Set in an arid western landscape, to which the film’s CinemaScope ratio gives full value, and shot in color, mostly in blinding sunlight, Bad Day at Black Rock is sandwiched between a number of notable Sturges Westerns, including Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Yet despite its look, Bad Day at Black Rock is really more of a film noir, with its story of dark secrets in the past.” (308, Edward Buscombe, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The vistas are vast and bleak which is expected when the film is set in a desert landscape. The colours are bright and vivid which are at odds with the film noir tone of Black Rock. You expect a film noir to be in black and white with extremes of light and dark reflecting the tumultuous nature of the story.

It’s almost as if Black Rock can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. While it’s set in the desert and is awash with cowboys that’s about as far as it goes in terms of a Western. “There’s little action and hardly any gunplay” (308) two tropes that identify a Western film. It’s easier to list what elements of Film Noir Black Rock eschews than those it holds to. There is no femme fatale – in fact the film is almost exclusively male with only one female character in the entire town. And as I mentioned before no extremes between light and shadow.

Bad Day at Black Rock is […] a taut, expertly acted and directed thriller that pushes a fairly straight forward message about racial tolerance.” (308) The film highlights the views many Americans had towards the Japanese following Pearl Harbor. The inhabitants are unable to separate race from nationality – they cannot get past the fact that Kamoko was Japanese despite him living and working in America, and as we discover later having a son fighting for America in the War. This inability to overlook Kamoko’s Japanese heritage has disastrous effects and results in the whole narrative of the film.

The tension ratchets up as the inhabitants of Black Rock become increasingly uncomfortable about Macreedy’s (Spencer Tracy) presence in the town and his rather innocent snooping. And yet rather than allow him to go on his was way they instead force him to remain in the town. The craziness occurs because the men follow the dominant personality of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). They become pretty secular and are intent on protecting their dirty little secret by any means necessary, often resorting to bully like tactics, the sort you find in high school (and should really stay there!) Macreedy is unshakeable and, with the exception of one rather impressive fight, remains above all the petty tactics aimed in his direction.

I do not like Westerns, never have and I doubt I ever will. It’s the one genre that I have never really engaged with. I find Westerns boring and always overly long. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl and the Western is very much a male genre – it’s telling that the only Westerns I like are Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953) which is a musical and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and let’s face it, that’s more of a Romance. Black Rock was not a film that succeeded in holding my attention for the entirety of the film, and that’s not really a ringing endorsement for the film under an hour and a half.


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