good men do nothing at Black Rock

Last night I watched Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) on TCM. Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman wrote the script, and it’s based on the Howard Breslin story “Bad Day At Hondo”. John Sturges helmed the film, a director that few people pay attention to any more even though he left a legacy of popular movies such as Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ice Station Zero, and The Eagle has Landed.

Bad Day begins with the classic scenario beloved of Westerns: a stranger comes to town. In this case the stranger is John J. Macreedy (Spenser Tracy), a one-armed man whose appearance in the tiny and insular town of Black Rock causes immediate suspicion and a closing of ranks.

I always watch the opening credits of a film with interest. In this case a modern train (for the 1950s) rushes across a flat scrubby wilderness that lies under the shadow of the massive Rocky Mountains. There is a sense of a new world invading the Old West. The train slows at the plain timber platform that comprises the station of Black Rock, and before a word is spoken we know this is an unusual event. There are several shots of cowboys and townsfolk who will comprise the main players of the film standing up or emerging from their wooden houses to witness the event.

I’d recommend reading the shooting script because McGuire and Kaufman have a lovely style of writing. Here’s how they describe Doc Velie (Walter Brennan):

EXT. SAM’S SANITARY BAR AND GRILL – ANGLE ON DOC VELIE

assayer and notary public, mortician to the citizens of Black
Rock who have departed to a better place, and veterinarian
to its lesser animals. An elderly, somewhat untidy gentleman,
he sits nonchalantly on a chair outside the Bar & Grill.
Idling with him are three or four other loafers, among them
Sam, the middle-aged proprietor of the restaurant. Doc glances
casually at his watch; no one else moves. The hot wind
continues listlessly down the empty street.

When the train stops immediately we are intrigued by the figure of Macreedy who climbs down from the train. He’s described thus:

The man behind him is big-shouldered, a granite-
like wedge of a man with calm, piercing eyes. There is about
him an air of monumental dependability and quiet humor, but
his eyes are those of a man who has lately lived in somber
familiarity with pain. His left arm hangs from his shoulder
with that lifeless rigidity of paralysis, while the hand is
hidden in his pocket.

Secrets: Macreedy is a man who carries his in his body, and Black Rock is a town that is riddled with them.

The first exchange of words is between Macreedy and the Conductor of the train:

CONDUCTOR
(softly, staring at
the towns people)
Man. They look woebegone and far
away.

MACREEDY
(looking around)
I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.

CONDUCTOR
In a place like this, it could be a
lifetime.
(turning to face
Macreedy)
Good luck, Mr. Macreedy.

The signals are clear. The town is hostile to strangers, and even the conductor senses it. This impression is enforced once Macreedy meets Mr. Hastings:

HASTINGS
You for Black Rock?

MACREEDY
(easily)
That’s right.

HASTINGS
(uneasily)
There must be some mistake. I’m
Hastings, the telegraph agent. Nobody
told me the train was stopping.

MACREEDY
(with a ghost of a
grin)
They didn’t?

HASTINGS
(upset)
I just said they didn’t, and they
ought to. What I — want to know,
why didn’t they?

MACREEDY
(shrugging)
Probably didn’t think it was
important.

HASTINGS
Important?! It’s the first time the
streamliner stopped here in four
years.
(swallowing nervously)
You being met? You visiting folks or
something? I mean, whatd’ya want?

MACREEDY
I want to go to Adobe Flat. Any cabs
available?

HASTINGS
(as if he hadn’t heard
right; as if he wanted
everyone in town to
know)
Adobe Flat?!
(he gulps, recovers
slightly)
No cabs.

MACREEDY
Where’s the hotel?

Hastings looks at him blankly. The thousand-yard stare of a
hypnotic glazes his features.

MACREEDY
(patiently)
I asked where’s the hotel?

Hastings points.

MACREEDY
Thanks.

With his suitcase, he cuts across a weedy path, running into
Black Rock’s single street. For a moment, Hastings stares
after him; then he breaks hurriedly, entering telegraph
agent’s shack.

INT. POSTAL TELEGRAPH OFFICE

as Hastings, fumbling, picks up the phone…

HASTINGS
(into mouthpiece)
Hello, Pete? Now, listen…

I notice that the screenwriters love their parentheses, which is something that writers today are warned against.

So, in the opening minutes of the film we know the kind of town that Macreedy is venturing into, we know the inhabitants are jittery about strangers, and there is something upsetting about Macreedy’s desire to go to Abode Flat. Plus, Macreedy’s interactions have shown him to be a person who won’t let others intimidate him or put him off his goal.

What I enjoyed mo

st about Macreedy is that he reveals very little in the beginning to the residents of the town but has a way of getting the townsfolks to divulge their secrets. It’s as if the town has been waiting for someone, anyone, to turn up to prompt the mass confession.

The ringleader of the local conspirators is the rancher Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), who does a great job of getting his lackeys to do most of his dirty work. Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin) are the main thugs of the piece. In their first interactions with Macreedy they are aggressive and the potential for violence is clear.

Macreedy agitates the locals further when he mentions a man he’s searching for: Komako. The word is jarring in this rural white community. It’s a Japanese name, and the film is set immediately after the end of World War II (even though the movie was released ten years after the war). What’s more fascinating is that Smith tells Macreedy that Komako was sent to a relocation camp after Pearl Harbour.

It’s uncovered as a lie immediately, but the mention of those camps–America’s dirty wartime secret–is astonishing. For today’s audience there is no frisson in that revelation but in 1955 I’d say a lot of people shifted uncomfortably in their seats when the subject was raised. It adds a layer of social commentary that’s very subtle, and contributes to the overall theme of the film that can be summarised in the quote by Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

As the film progresses we discover that Macreedy lost the use of his arm in Italy, where a young soldier called Joe Komako died saving Macreedy’s life. Joe was awarded a medal for bravery, and Macreedy’s only reason for coming to Black Rock was to deliver the medal to Joe’s father. The townspeople inferred a great deal more from Macreedy’s interest in the deceased Japanese farmer, and set in motion a series of events that result in the murderers being punished.

Without any sermons from the pulpit, the film underscores that while Japanese-American soldiers like Joe Komako was risking their lives in the war, their relatives were being herded into camps, and some of them were murdered in the post-Pearl Harbour outrage. There’s a nice touch in the final exchange between Macreedy and Doc, as the wrong-doers are rounded up and Macreedy is about to take the train out of Black Rock.

MACREEDY
What’s on your mind, Doc?

DOC
Nothing. Only… about that medal.
Can we have it?

MACREEDY
“We…?” Can who have it?

DOC
We.
(indicating the
townspeople, with a
vague wave of his
hand)
Us.

MACREEDY
Why?

DOC
Well, we need it, I guess. It’s
something we can maybe build on.
This town is wrecked, just as bad as
if it was bombed out. Maybe it can
come back…

MACREEDY
Some towns come back. Some don’t. It
depends on the people.

Macreedy gives Doc the medal: the symbol of selfless bravery. The town has a chance. Macreedy, who came to the town despondent about his injury, realises that he is still capable of dealing with whatever the world throws at him, and leaves on the train a reinvigorated man.

In some ways Bad Day at Black Rock is a simple story with a linear plot. Yet, underneath the surface there are many nuances about the closed nature of communities and the need for honour and to do what is right.

The direction of the film might appear straightforward but Sturges has a fantastic eye for composition and utilises the advantages of widescreen like a master. The bleak and blasted landscape sometimes dominate the people, which emphasises their isolation from a new America. There is a marvellous shot of Lee Marvin, where his long spare frame lounges on the bed in Macreedy’s room when the one-armed man walks in. Wearing a Stetson, a shirt, jeans, and boats Marvin is the epitome of the cowboy, who in this case represents the worst of close-minded mid-West America.

The acting is uniformly strong, but it’s hardly surprising when you consider the cast.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a film that demonstrates that much can be conveyed in a simple fashion, and all you need for a story is the right person in the wrong place who asks the correct questions.