Although the characters in Bad Day at Black Rock chase each other with automobiles instead of horses, the movie is unquestionably a western. When Spencer Tracy steps off the streamliner into the Arizona hamlet, it is the first time the train has stopped there in for years. Vast desert countryside, in CinemaScope, presents an appropriately morbid and untrammeled background for Black Rock, which contains the usual lawless gang and hapless sheriff. Conspicuously absent, however, is the stereotyped melodrama which might have brought Bad Day at Black Rock down to the level of typical cowboy films.
There is no great psychological depth to the collective crime that lies behind Black Rock's stranger hostility, but the cast and director John Sturges handle the tension of the situation with effective subtlety and restraint. Tracy, as a hard and embittered World War II cripple, conceals his own motivations from the townspeople just as they try desperately to hide their guilt from him. The strain builds up gradually to a series of explosive confrontations which equal any more violent movie in their excitement and match the rest of this picture in their plausibility.
Robert Ryan, Ernest Brognine, and John Ericson run the more conventional outlaw gamut, from ruthless leader to respectively brutal and sensitive followers. As the garrulous doctor and the besotted law officers, Walter Brennan and Dean Jagger convincingly exhibit the weaknesses which prevent either of them from acting against his criminal neighbors. A near catastrophe to the film's carefully constricted tone occurs when Anne Francis, as fresh and unnatural as a desert mirage, enters the scene. Fortunately, her role is slight and leaves no romantic blemishes.
Bad Day at Black Rock can receive little credit for originality, since it shows strong influences of such predecessors as High Noon and The Gunfighter. But if the psychological western has now become a movie form of its own, Bad Day is an entertaining and skillful contribution to the genre.