BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 1, 2015

It’s a few months after the end of World War II when a one-armed man named Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off a train in the small rundown Western town of Black Rock — which immediately gives the locals pause because the train hasn’t stopped there in four years.

Macreedy is looking for someone, a Japanese-American interned during the war. But the reception Macreedy receives is less than cordial. In fact, everyone he runs into seems quite hostile.

The hotel clerk claims there are no vacant rooms, which seems unlikely, and Macreedy is threatened and harassed by local toughs (Robert Ryan, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine), while the local sheriff (Dean Jagger) is a weak alcoholic.

Even those who aren’t downright hostile are less than encouraging, urging him to leave, though two such residents (Anne Francis and Walter Brennan) offer some reluctant assistance while still harboring secrets.

  

Robert Ryan, left, Spencer Tracy, Anne Francis, 'Bad Day ...'

Such is the strange, almost “Twilight Zone”-like world of “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), a gripping and quite colorful thriller filled with atmosphere and excellent performances from the terrific cast. (It was one of Turner Classic Movies’ “Essentials” in the ongoing cable series that showcases must-see movies.)

The film is a scant 81 minutes but it’s packed so tightly that the narrative is completely satisfying. (To appreciate this more, think about how many modern movies seem to sag and drag with bloated running times that approach or surpass two to three hours.)

Directed with a sure hand by John Sturges (who would go on to helm “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape” and many others), “Bad Day at Black Rock” is also a real showcase for up-to-date motion-picture technology (circa 1955), as widescreen processes and color cinematography were not yet the standard.

 

Spencer Tracy, left, confronted by Lee Marvin, center, in 'Bad Day ... '

Although most movies were experimenting with widescreen by this time (the first CinemaScope picture arrived in 1953), the major studios were a still bit leery about the process, unsure if it would really replace the standard boxy style of projection (MGM filmed “Bad Day at Black Rock” in both versions, though the latter was never released).

And in the mid-1950s, black-and-white movies were still the standard, although color films were becoming more common, especially musicals and Westerns.

Both widescreen and color were encroaching quickly, however, and within a few years all movies were in widescreen processes, and black and white was becoming more and more rare.

And now’s your chance to see “Bad Day at Black Rock’s” widescreen compositions and bright colors on display in a big-screen theater on Friday, May 1, at 7 p.m., in the Harold B. Lee Library auditorium on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo. Admission is free.