Combustible Celluloid
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With: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande
Written by: Millard Kaufman, Don McGuire, based on a story by Howard Breslin
Directed by: John Sturges
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 81
Date: 01/07/1955

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Cinemascope first appeared, directors automatically used it to create large-scale movies, filled with spectacle and costumes and whatever else they could think of to fill up the frame. With Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges decided to fill it with absence and emptiness. In fact, one of the most important characters in the movie never even appears.

Spencer Tracy plays the one-armed man John J. Macreedy who gets off the train at Black Rock. No one gets off the train at Black Rock, so the townspeople are instantly suspicious, and even hostile. Sturges cast an incredible array of tough character actors to provide a real threat: Robert Ryan as the man in charge (he even bosses Dean Jagger's drunken sheriff around), plus Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Walter Brennan has one of his most complex roles as the town doctor who begins to question what's going on, and Anne Francis is perhaps a little too cute for this forsaken town, but does her job well.

Sturges does remarkable things with the 24-hour time period, the wide-open dusty spaces and Tracy's crisp black suit: space and time and color used as menace. In one scene, Macreedy investigates some wildflowers, which he determines indicates that something terrible is buried beneath. The movie certainly has some high-minded agendas, and some not-so-subtle preaching about the evils of war and racism, but Sturges moves it all at a crisp, supple "B" movie clip, leaving off at a tight, compact 81 minutes. It's a pinnacle of 1950s Hollywood filmmaking.

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