When I first bought my DVD player all those years ago, I was so excited. And then I went to buy some of the movies that I really wanted to have in my library. Much to my disappointment, most of the films I really wanted weren't on DVD. So I just waited, and over the years, slowly but surely, amidst the crap that's released on a weekly basis, great films have managed to slip through the cracks. There are still quite a few films I want on DVD that have yet to be released. But now that Bad Day at Black Rock is here, there's one less film on the wish list.
It is hard to categorize director John Sturges' 1954 film. Blurring the lines between westerns, film noir, and mysteries, Bad Day at Black Rock emerges as a seamless marriage of multiple genres. A tight knit thriller that moves at a laconic pace, the film is also a classic example of the old school tough guy films, with Spencer Tracy standing out as an unconventional, yet thoroughly convincing asskicker.
The fun begins several months after the end of World War II, when John J. Macreedy (Tracy), a disabled veteran, arrives by train in the sleepy desert community of Black Rock. This is the first time the train has stopped in Black Rock in four years, and Macreedy is the first visitor in as many years. What his purpose is in town remains unclear, but the one thing that is certain is that he is not welcome. From the moment he steps off the train, Macreedy is greeted with suspicion and outright hostility. And when he begins asking questions about a resident of Black Rock, a Japanese-American named Komoko, things really begin to heat up. It is soon clear that the residents of Black Rock have a secret they want to keep, even if it means killing Macreedy.
Spencer Tracy is not the first actor you think of when you think of an action hero. And when you try to imagine him going up against villains like those portrayed by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, it's difficult to not break out into laughter. But Tracy manages, for the most part, to pull it off. He plays Macreedy as a world-weary loner who arrives in Black Rock with nothing to live for, but soon finds a renewed sense of purpose – first in trying to unravel the mystery surrounding Komoko and, eventually, trying to stay alive. Tracy's Macreedy is the classic reluctant hero, much like Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, but at the same time he is the mysterious force to be reckoned with, much like the characters Clint Eastwood would go on to play in many of his westerns. In fact, Bad Day at Black Rock bares a passing resemblance to the Eastwood classic High Plains Drifter.
Sturges, best known for such classic action films as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, delivers one of the best films of his esteemed career. In the contemporary era of action films, defined by fast paced editing and pyrotechnics, Bad Day at Black Rock is from a time when shot composition meant something, and action was used as a punctuation point, but not as the entire sentence.
Bad Day at Black Rock was beautifully shot in Cinemascope, and the 2:35.1 widescreen presentation preserves the stunning photography. The image transfer, however, is whole different matter. Much of the time the image looks great, with crisp clean images and vibrant color. But every now then you see scratched on the print source, color distortion during certain scene transitions, and most disappointing severe damage to the print on at least one occasion.
Bad Day at Black Rock is presented in Dolby Digital Surround, but the mix itself is low, and you'll need to crack the volume pretty high to hear everything.
Film historian Dana Polan provides an academic audio commentary, which while not being boring, is far from exciting. At least Polan doesn't sound like he's reading off a cheat sheet, but at the same time his commentary isn't something that calls out to be listened to. There is also the original theatrical trailer.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]