One of the reasons I like vintage Hollywood movies is that they often tell interesting stories about women. With all the buddy films and macho adventure flicks prevalent in today’s movie complexes, it’s nice to view a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood that provides a feminine dimension. In the 1950s, Hollywood provided plenty of these stories, but also produced talky male confrontational epics such as “Twelve Angry Men,” and “The Sweet Smell of Success,” both from 1957.
“Bad Day at Black Rock,” a CinemaScope and Eastman Color production from 1955, takes male confrontation to an extreme level and offers a view of the crumbling myth of the old west where loyalty and self-sufficiency give way to changing attitudes about race, expansion and frontier justice. The film stars a pantheon of rough and tumble male stars, including Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. The plot involves the efforts of John Macreedy (Spenser Tracy), a World War 2 veteran, to deliver a war medal to the father of a Japanese American soldier killed in Europe during the war. As soon as he gets off the train in Black Rock, a settlement in Arizona that’s nothing more than a couple of streets and an intersection, the jeering, unfriendly and predominantly male population threaten to harm him if he doesn’t leave.
The town’s main thug, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), uses fear and intimidation the control his gang, who consist of Coley Trimble (Borgnine), Hector David (Marvin), Pete Wirth (John Ericson) and an obedient telegraph man named Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins). Two older gentlemen add complacency if not obedience: Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) and ineffectual Sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger). Glamorous and gorgeous Anne Francis plays the lone woman in town, Liz Wirth, the sister of Pete who appears to have a romantic connection to Reno.
Reno and his henchmen can’t figure out Macreedy’s angle, but they know he’ll uncover clues about a murder that could lead them to danger. They continually test him but he remains passive, possibly because he’s a man who lost one arm fighting the war in Europe. When Coley finally pushes Macreedy too far, mostly by trying to drive him off a highway in the film’s first action sequence, he pays a heavy price for it. After that, both the gang and the audience suddenly realize Macreedy should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately for Macreedy, the claustrophobic feel of this nasty testosterone-fueled town leaves him little room to escape with his life.
Unlike the yappy male stars in “12 Angry Men,” the thugs in this movie don’t say much except for a few threats, some solid warnings to Macreedy to get out of town, and a speech or two about the sanctity of a Western small town. Director John Sturges accomplishes much with gesture and the use of space. The viewer can delight in seeing the uncompromising menace Macreedy faces in Black Rock, and wonder who will be the first to crack under the pressure.