Bad Day at Black Rock

At the Brattle

When Spencer Tracy walks off the train into Black Rock, he has a maimed left arm; he is considerably better off than most of the combatants at the end of the film, the most comfortable of whom presumably has nothing more serious than a concussion. Bad Day at Black Rock is a literate, suspenseful Western, but those accustomed to mere gunfights and fisticuffs had better be ready for a slightly more sadistic brand of action.

The fact that this movie, which takes place after World War II, has no horses, cattle, ranchers' daughters, or, most crucially, saloons, raises the important question of whether it can properly be classified as a Western at all. Aside from its geographic location, the familiar mountain-surrounded desert (Cinemascope and color), none of the characteristics which serve to identify the Western are present.

On closer examination, however, the superficiality of this analysis becomes apparent; its incorrectness stems from the ambiguity of definition caused by two genres, both called "Westerns," one of which has been relegated mainly to television, the other of which is being produced in equal quantity by contemporary Hollywood. This second species, of which Bad Day is an example, can roughly be described as some combination of the High Noon plot, and Shane ethos, and a gimmick.

The gimmick in the current film is Black Rock itself, a town bearing little resemblance to the standard farmer-cowman battleground. Black Rock is unusually homogeneous, "consumed with apathy," until the appearance of the outsider threatens the power elite and probes the town's collective guilty conscience. The suspension of disbelief called for is somewhat greater than usual, owing to the improbable economic and social set-up of the town, population circa twelve, all of whom sport neuroses of one sort or other. One day's exposure to the hero is all the therapy they need to set them straight, however, while he seems also to have undergone Rebirth by the time he rides out of town.

Spencer Tracy plays the stranger, a man endowed with the resourcefulness of Robinson Crusoe, to say nothing of an incredible judo chop. Robert Ryan is the principal meanie, but his neanderthal sidekicks supply most of the diabolic appeal. Anne Francis contributes the moist lipstick.

The direction tries to make up for the ennui which inevitably accompanies a waiting-for-the-kill plot by using devices intended to induce dread, mainly through unexpected camera angles and ominous background music. These are used too early and often to be effective, and leave the impression that the camerawork, which is otherwise very good, was done by a dwarf.

To balance this, the film offers better-than-average dialogue, as well as a continual morbid fascination which keeps up the suspense. If your date can take it, this is a good one to see.