Criterion Prediction #9: Bad Day at Black Rock, by Alexander Miller
Title: Bad Day at Black Rock
Director: John Sturges
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Walter Brenan, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger
Synopsis: A one-armed man, Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), arrives in the titular town with one thing in mind; find and figure out what happened to his friend Kamoko. The story takes place shortly after WWII. Macreedy finds that the residents of Black Rock aren’t the friendliest and once he reveals his intentions, Macreedy finds himself at odds with the entire population, resulting in him fighting for his life. The small dusty town is harboring a secret, a bad one, and they’re willing to kill Macready before he gets to the truth. The locals are hostile; the sheriff a drunk and Macready won’t stop until he figures out what everyone is willing to risk their lives to conceal.
Critique: Bad Day at Black Rock takes place in an era that is close to the film’s present day. It is a western directed by genre stalwart John Sturges (responsible for titles such as The Magnificent Seven, Joe Kid, and Gunfight at the OK Corral). Having said that, this film is a sturdy, tough, and smart thriller that makes a rather poignant observation about wartime hostilities and prejudice. And if you consider the time in which it was made, this is a pretty daring effort to boot. It’s impossible to overlook that Bad Day at Black Rock is a proverbial “who’s who” of great actors, Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger and John Ericson. And no one here is idling for a paycheck, this Rolodex of talent are all in top form, perhaps some of the best performances of their careers. Plus, this isn’t some second bill indie; this is a major MGM studio picture exploring the darker side of life in postwar America, not the light fare that was common at this late stage in the studio era. Even when you strip away the political/social implications Bad Day at Black Rock is a superbly crafted thriller, with expertly staged car chases, fight scenes and genuinely gripping moments of suspense. Sturges’ film is an entirely satisfying experience that is as well acted as it is directed.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: If you see the “Explore” section on Criterion’s website, there’s one devoted to Technicolor. While there are lavish period films, epic war tales, domestic melodramas, and Byron Haskin’s sci-fi classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the presence of a noir-inspired modern western would be an interesting thumbnail to click on, sandwiched between Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life. It seems like Criterion has a soft spot for Technicolor (as well as yours truly) it would be interesting to see more films from that finite period when Hollywood was contending with television at the twilight of the studio system. While overblown flops were killing the big five, you still had gems directed by veterans like John Sturges. Bad Day at Black Rock might not be as renowned as The Magnificent Seven; however, it might even be the director’s strongest film.
While Criterion’s catalog during the laserdisc years was more commercially viable (Dr. No, Singin’ in the Rain, Pulp Fiction) Bad Day at Black Rock, a former Criterion Laserdisc, would be a good fit and a standout title for a DVD/Blu-Ray release. John Sturges’ LD commentary could be resurfaced as a bonus feature, plus an overall 4k restoration would look immaculate. The Warner DVD is decent, but a Criterion release would be superb.