Bad Day at Black Rock (film)
Theatrical release poster. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
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Critically acclaimed 1955 movie starring Spencer Tracy whose plot is built around the murder of the Issei father of a Nisei war hero in a forlorn desert town and its subsequent cover up. Though it was one of the first movies to note the discrimination Japanese Americans faced during World War II, no Japanese American characters appear in it. Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Academy Awards.
The story originated in a short story by Howard Breslin titled "Bad Time at Honda" in 1947 in The American Magazine that was adapted into a script by Don McGuire and pitched to MGM production head Dore Schary. Head of production at MGM since 1948, Schary was known throughout his career as a liberal who favored message movies that attacked social problems. Among these was Go for Broke! , on the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , which Schary produced in 1951.  Schary bought the script, but had it rewritten by Millard Kaufman and decided to rename the town because of the similarity to the recent John Wayne movie Hondo , with Kaufman coming up with "Black Rock" after a real town in Arizona. Though he was much older (55) than the platoon leader who was supposed to be in his mid-thirties, Schary saw Spencer Tracy in the lead role of John J. Macready and convinced the star to take the role. Kaufman finished the script in the fall of 1953. Just a month prior to the July 1954 start of shooting, director John Sturges was signed to direct. Schary's production team built the dilapidated small town in eleven days near Lone Pine, California—ironically in the shadow of the real life location of Manzanar . Schary decided to shoot the $1.3 million movie in color and to use Cinemascope, feeling that the new widescreen technology would emphasize the town's isolation and menace. The cast and crew braved the 100 degree plus desert temperatures before the production moved to the studio lot in Culver City on August 9.
The film had its first screening at Loew's 72nd Street theater in New York on December 8, 1954, and opened nationally early in 1955.
Plot and Impact
John J. Macreedy (Tracy), a mysterious stranger with a crippled arm, arrives in the tiny desert town of Black Rock in 1945 and is immediately greeted with mysterious hostility by the locals. That hostility increases when he announces his desire to visit Adobe Flats and asks about a Japanese farmer named Kamoko. When Macreedy asks the town's leader, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), about Kamoko, he tells Macreedy that Kamoko was "a Japanese farmer, never had a chance. Got here in '41 just before Pearl Harbor. Three months later, they shipped him off to a relocation center. Tough." Meanwhile, the townspeople debate over what to do about the intruder, deciding to kill him. Macreedy visits Adobe Flats to find a burned out home and a grave and deduces both that Smith killed Kamoko and that he and the townspeople plan to kill him as well that evening. Realizing his only hope is to appeal to the consciences of some of the townspeople, he enlists their help in foiling their plan and exposing the killing of Kamoko. One of them reveals that Smith has leased the land at Adobe Flats to Kamoko, thinking he was swindling him since there was no water. But Kamoko dug a deep well, making the land profitable. Bitter about that and angry over Pearl Harbor, Smith and a mob killed Kamoko shortly after Dec. 7, and rest of the town has been keeping the secret ever since. It turns out that Macreedy served in Europe with Kamoko's son, who saved his life but was killed in action; Macreedy came to town only because he wanted to deliver his son's medal to Kamoko.
Bad Day at Black Rock received almost universally positive reviews at the time with many reviewers noting its Western-like elements, often comparing it favorably to the acclaimed Western High Noon and praising cinematographer William C. Mellor's use of the wide screen to heighten the isolation and menace of Black Rock.  Philip T. Hartung of The Commonweal calls it "a tight and suspenseful melodrama" and "excellent throughout," while Arthur Knight in The Saturday Review calls it "...a refreshingly taut and surprisingly thoughtful little melodrama." John O'Hara in Colliers Weekly simply refers to it as "one of the finest motion pictures ever made."  The film appeared on the New York Times ten best list for 1955 and received three Academy Award Nominations: Tracy for best actor, Sturges for best director, and Kaufman for best screenplay.  More recently, Janey Place astutely observes that "... opinion as to what its message is has changed considerably since the film was originally released.... Reviewers of the time saw the film's theme as one of civil responsibility, individual integrity, and group complacency.... No reviewers of the time, however, saw the message that seems so clear today: Bad Day at Black Rock is a scathing indictment of the blacklist in Hollywood." 
In the 1992 film History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige , filmmaker Rea Tajiri uses footage from Bad Day at Black Rock to critique mainstream representations of Asian Americans, or in this case the lack of such representation even in a movie largely built around the travails of an Asian American character.
- Pearl Latteier, "The Hollywood Social Problem Film, 1946–1959" (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2010), 97–105.
- Among the many to make the Hign Noon comparison are Bosley Crowther in the New York Times (Feb. 2, 1955; accessed on March 28, 2013 at http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=9E01EFDB1F3FE035A65751C0A9649C946492D6CF&oref=slogin ); Philip T. Hartung in The Commonweal ("From High Noon On," Jan. 14, 1955, 407); G. N. Fenin in Film Culture 1.3 (May-June 1955), 27; and Robert Hatch in The Nation (Feb. 19, 1955, 165–66). Relative to High Noon , Hatch writes, "The new picture is the better by a variety of measurements." Among those praising Mellor's use of CinemaScope are Newsweek (Feb. 21, 1955, 94); Time (Jan. 17, 1955, 74); Variety (Dec. 15, 1954, 6); and Fenin in Film Culture .
- Hartung, The Commonweal , Arthur Knight, The Saturday Review , Jan. 29, 1955, p. 26; John O'Hara, "Appointment with O'Hara," Colliers Weekly , March 18, 1955, p. 6, accessed on March 26, 2013 at http://www.unz.org/Pub/Colliers-1955mar18-00006?View=Search&SearchView=PDFHits&pages=6 .
- All lost out to their counterparts in Marty ; best actor award winner Ernest Borgnine was a supporting player in Black Rock .
- Janey Place, "Bad Day at Black Rock." In Frank N. Magill, Magill's Survey of Cinema: English Language Films, First Series, Volume 1 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1980), 116.
|Producer||Dore Schary (producer)|
|Starring||Spencer Tracy (John J. McGready), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ann Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Tim Horn), Lee Marvin (Hector David)|
|Cinematography||William C. Mellor (director of photography)|
|Editing||Newell P. Kimlin|
For More Information
"Bad Day at Black Rock." In American Film Institute Catalog: Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911–1960. Edited by Alan Gevinson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 61–62.
Curtis, James. Spencer Tracy: A Biography . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Latteier, Pearl. "The Hollywood Social Problem Film, 1946–1959." PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2010.
Place, Janey. "Bad Day at Black Rock." In Frank N. Magill. Magill's Survey of Cinema: English Language Films, First Series, Volume 1 . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1980.
Schary, Dore. Heyday: An Autobiography . Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.