Monday, January 4, 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

One-armed war veteran John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) steps off the train into a small dusty town with lots of suspicious faces and apparently only one woman (Anne Francis). He's looking for a Japanese farmer named Komoko, but whenever he asks the standoffish townspeople for assistance he's met with angry comments or unhelpful hints. He has trouble getting a hotel room, transportation, and food, but pushes through with unshakable politeness that confuses everybody around him.

Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) tells him that Komoko was taken to an internment camp during WWII and hasn't been seen since, but it's clear that he's holding back some secret. Smith goads several other men into antagonizing Macreedy, hoping to either get him out of town quickly or do away with the problem altogether. The local sheriff (Dean Jagger) turns a blind eye to everything but the good-natured doctor (Walter Brennan) does his best to help him escape Smith's clutches, as he runs out of options to leave the isolated town.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a pretty good movie. It's sort of a western and sort of a mystery, but mostly a thriller with an unconventional hero and a whole lot of tension. The cast is great, with Spencer Tracy pulling out the ol' "charming older guy who reminds me of my grandpa but oh wait he's actually weirdly badass" routine and Robert Ryan being creepy as hell. I liked Walter Brennan a lot because he felt like a guy I could instantly trust and maybe play cards with. Lee Marvin shows up (looking really good) as one of the more assholeish townspeople, as does Ernest Borgnine. Anne Francis is in about two scenes and doesn't do much besides drive a jeep and make a bad decision, which is too bad because she starts off as a potentially strong and interesting character.

I thought this would be more about the mystery of what the townspeople are hiding, but it's pretty obvious what happened early on. Instead it's more about how they'll handle Macreedy, and how he'll stand up to them. Because it was easy to figure out the "big reveal" of the town's secret that happens towards the end, I found that aspect of the film less engaging. There's a lot of ambiguous and guarded talk skirting around what really happened, which became repetitive and a little annoying. But as the story builds, it becomes a tense and unpredictable thriller about the paranoid sickness that's infiltrated a whole population and one man's fight to survive it.