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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)
A mysterious stranger arrives at a remote midwestern town, causing consternation among the locals (about ten people, all told), none of whom are very receptive to strangers or mysteries. To say much more would spoil the plot although, all things considered, there isn’t a whole lot of plot to spoil. Like many remote, sparsely populated cinematic towns, this one harbors a few secrets, and an inquisitive outsider threatens to unearth a past that the residents would sooner keep buried.
There are two reasons to watch Bad Day at Black Rock. One is to see Spencer Tracy (The Stranger) sharing the screen with the likes of Lee Marvin, Anne Francis, and Ernest Borgnine (who would have his breakout role in Marty just a few months later). Watching the tension build as these master thespians trade incisive, but totally clean, Hays-approved barbs is a fantastic example of the effectiveness of classic Hollywood and an absolute clinic on how to add dramatic weight to otherwise innocuous moments.
The other reason is the one-armed fight scene. Tracy’s character is a (somewhat anachronistically, considering his age at the time) World War II veteran who had his left arm disabled in combat (an effect achieved by having him keep his left hand resolutely jammed in his coat pocket at all times). This doesn’t prevent him from dispensing the odd ass kicking when the situation calls for it, however. What’s more, Tracy subdues his opponents with karate chops and throws, unprecedented for the time, and what must have seemed like black magic to an audience more familiar with John Wayne style fisticuffs. The fact that this happened over ten years before Jimmy Wang Yu ever picked up a sword is evidence that the movie was, in some ways, well ahead of its time.
Bad Day at Black Rock is often referred to as a Western even though it was set in the then recent year of 1945. There are certainly some classic Western tropes at play, but these are the same tropes that are still commonly seen in films up to the modern day. There’s also an unexpected message of racial tolerance that was doubly ballsy for the time and setting. Overall, Bad Day at Black Rock demonstrates that, in the right hands, even a relatively thin premise can be turned into a masterpiece that has aged remarkably well. It’s a potboiler plot without many twists, but Bad Day at Black Rock is elevated by its superb direction, masterful pacing, and sublime performances by every member of the cast.
Final Score: A
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