Bad Day at Black Rock

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Bad Day at Black Rock
Bad day at black rock.JPG
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Sturges
Produced by Dore Schary
Screenplay by Don McGuire
Millard Kaufman
Story by Howard Breslin
Starring Spencer Tracy
Robert Ryan
Anne Francis
Dean Jagger
Walter Brennan
Ernest Borgnine
Lee Marvin
Music by André Previn
Cinematography William C. Mellor
Editing by Newell P. Kimlin
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • January 7, 1955 (1955-01-07) (United States)
Running time 81 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,271,000[1][2]
Box office $3,788,000[1]

Bad Day at Black Rock is a 1955 thriller film directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan that combines elements of Westerns and film noir. The supporting cast includes Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, and Ernest Borgnine.

The picture tells the story of a mysterious stranger who arrives at a tiny isolated town in a desert of the southwest United States in search of a man. The film was adapted by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman from the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin.[3][4][5][6] The original story had appeared in The American Magazine in January 1947, with full-color illustrations by Robert Fawcett.[7][8]


In late 1945, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), who lacks the use of his left arm, steps off the Southern Pacific passenger train at the desert hamlet of Black Rock. It is the first time the train has stopped there in four years. Macreedy is looking for a man named Komoko, and a place called Adobe Flats, but the few residents are inexplicably hostile. The young hotel desk clerk, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), claims he has no vacant rooms. The newcomer is none-too-subtly threatened by local tough Hector David (Lee Marvin). Later, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the town's intimidating unofficial leader, informs Macreedy that Komoko, as a Japanese-American, was interned during World War II.

Certain that something is wrong, Macreedy sees the local sheriff, Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), but the alcoholic lawman is clearly afraid of Smith and impotent to help. The veterinarian and undertaker, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), advises Macreedy to leave town immediately, but Smith lets slip that Komoko is dead. Pete's sister, Liz (Anne Francis), rents Macreedy a Jeep and he drives to nearby Adobe Flats, where he finds a homestead burned to the ground, a deep well, and wildflowers. On the way back, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) tries unsuccessfully to run him off the road.

Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy arriving by train at Black Rock. His left arm hangs by his side, the sleeve in his left coat pocket.

When Smith later asks, Macreedy informs him he lost the use of his left arm fighting in Italy. Macreedy tells him he found wildflowers at the Komoko place, leading him to suspect that a body is buried underneath. Smith reveals that he is virulently anti-Japanese; he tried to enlist in the Marines the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but failed the physical and was rejected for service.

Macreedy tries to telephone the State Police, but Pete refuses to put the call through. Doc Velie admits that something terrible happened four years ago and that Smith has everyone too terrified to speak up. Velie offers Macreedy his hearse to leave town, but it will not start. Hector appears and rips out the distributor cap and spark plug wires. Macreedy goes to Hastings' (Russell Collins) telegraph office and writes a telegram addressed to the state police. At the town diner, Trimble attempts to pick a fight with Macreedy, but Macreedy uses judo and karate to beat him up and knock him out. Macreedy tells Smith that he knows Smith killed Komoko and that he was too cowardly to do it alone, so he involved Hector, Pete, and Coley.

When Macreedy arrives in the hotel lobby, Smith and his henchmen are already there. Doc Velie and Sheriff Horn are there, too. Hastings arrives and tries to give Smith a piece of paper (presumably a telegram) but Macreedy snatches it away and discovers that it is his own unsent message. Macreedy and Doc Velie recognize that Hastings has violated the federal law of the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 and demand that Sheriff Horn do something. When Horn tries to confront Smith, however, Smith takes away his sheriff's badge and pins it on Hector. Hector tears up the note for the telegraph message (evidence).

After Smith and Hector leave, Macreedy reveals that the loss of his arm had left him wallowing in self-pity, but Smith's attempt to kill him has given him strength again. Macreedy finally learns what happened after revealing that he came to Black Rock to give Komoko his son's medal. (Komoko's son was a soldier serving in Italy and died in combat while saving Macreedy's life.) The elder Komoko leased some farmland from Smith, who was sure there was no water there. However, Komoko dug a well deep enough to find water, and installed a windmill there to pump water. After Smith was turned down for enlistment the day after Pearl Harbor, he and the other men spent the day drinking, then decided to scare Komoko. The old man barricaded himself inside his home, but the men set the place on fire. When Komoko emerged ablaze, Smith shot him and buried him on the property in an unmarked grave.

Macreedy and Doc Velie later devise a plan for Macreedy to escape under the cover of darkness. Pete lures Hector who is standing guard outside the hotel, into the hotel office, where Doc Velie knocks him out. Liz drives Macreedy out of town in her Jeep, but stops in a canyon. Macreedy realizes he has been betrayed. When Smith starts firing at him, Macreedy shelters behind the Jeep. Liz rushes to Smith despite Macreedy's warning, and Smith tells her as a witness she has to die along with the rest of his accomplices. He shoots her in the back when she tries to run. Macreedy finds a bottle and fills it with gasoline from the jeep's fuel line, creating a Molotov cocktail. When Smith climbs down for a better shot, Macreedy throws it, hitting the rock next to Smith and setting him on fire.

Macreedy drives up to the town jail with the injured Smith and Liz's body. Doc Velie and Horn rush out; they had mustered up enough courage to jail Hector and Trimble. The state police are called in, and as Macreedy is leaving, Doc Velie requests Komoko's medal to help Black Rock heal. Macreedy gives it to him just before boarding the train.



Nicholas Schenck, MGM's president at the time, nearly did not allow the picture to be made because he felt the story was subversive. The film's producer, Dore Schary, wanted Spencer Tracy for the leading role. Concerned that Tracy might not accept, Schary ordered the script changed so that Macreedy was a one-armed man. He concluded that no actor would turn down the chance to play a character with a handicap.

Just before shooting began, an indecisive Tracy tried to back out of the picture. Schary made clear that he was willing to sue the actor if he quit the film.[9] According to Robert Osborne of the television network Turner Classic Movies in the introduction to the film's airing on its weekly segment "The Essentials," Tracy, weighed down by his growing alcoholism, refused to give MGM an answer. In order to close the deal, according to Osborne, an MGM executive contacted Tracy shortly before filming was to begin and said, "Don't worry, Mr. Tracy, a copy of the script has been sent to Alan Ladd and he has agreed to do the picture." The next day, Tracy committed to Bad Day at Black Rock. Ladd, however, apparently never even saw the script. It turned out to be Tracy's last film for MGM, with the exception of How the West Was Won (1962), for which Tracy supplied the narration.

Preview audiences reacted negatively to the film's original opening sequence. A revised one, showing the speeding train rushing at the camera, replaced it. The shot was taken from a helicopter as it flew away from the moving train. The film was run in reverse to create the opening shot.

Bad Day at Black Rock was filmed in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills, one of hundreds of movies that have been filmed in the area since 1920. The "town" of Black Rock was built for the film. Today nothing remains of the set, erected one mile north (36°38′2.84″N 118°2′23.74″W / 36.6341222°N 118.0399278°W / 36.6341222; -118.0399278Coordinates: 36°38′2.84″N 118°2′23.74″W / 36.6341222°N 118.0399278°W / 36.6341222; -118.0399278) of the Lone Pine station, a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad's Jawbone Branch, which served the northern Mojave Desert and Owens Valley.


According to MGM records the film earned $1,966,000 in the US and Canada and $1,822,000 elsewhere, making the studio a profit of $947,000.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Variety magazine's reviewer wrote: "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory. Besides telling a yarn of tense suspense, the picture is concerned with a social message on civic complacency."[10]

Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, also liked it, writing, "Slowly, through a process of guarded discourse, which director John Sturges has built up by patient, methodical pacing of his almost completely male cast, an eerie light begins to glimmer ... Quite as interesting as the drama, which smacks of being contrived, are the types of masculine creatures paraded in this film. Mr. Tracy is sturdy and laconic as a war veteran with a lame arm (which does not hamper him, however, in fighting judo style). Mr. Ryan is angular and vicious as the uneasy king-pin of the town, and Walter Brennan is cryptic and caustic as the local mortician with a streak of spunk. Ernest Borgnine as a potbellied bully (he was Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in From Here to Eternity), Dean Jagger as a rum-guzzling sheriff, Lee Marvin as a dimwitted tough, John Ericson as a nervous hotel clerk and Russell Collins as a station-master are all good, too."[11] (Ericson and Ms. Francis later starred together in Honey West.)

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 25 reviews."[12]






  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008 p97
  3. ^ Bad Day at Black Rock at the Internet Movie Database.
  4. ^ "Metro to Stress Big-Budget Films", The New York Times, August 7, 1953 
  5. ^ "Metro Eyes Tracy For Western Lead", The New York Times, August 13, 1953 
  6. ^ "Author Breslin Succumbs at 51", Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1964 
  7. ^ Breslin, Howard, "Bad Time at Honda", The American Magazine 143: 40 
  8. ^ Hitt, Jim (1990), The American West from Fiction (1823-1976) into Film (1909-1986), McFarland, ISBN 978-0-89950-378-3 
  9. ^ Andersen, Christopher P., p.243
  10. ^ Variety. Film review, 1954. Last accessed; February 2, 2008.
  11. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, February 2, 1955. Last accessed: March 18, 2008.
  12. ^ Bad Day at Black Rock at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: February 17, 2011.
  13. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Bad Day at Black Rock". Retrieved 2009-01-31. 


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