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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by John Sturges
Sometimes you can travel a few hundred miles and find yourself in what seems like another world. That happened to me once when I decided to drive through Schuylkill County, in Pennsylvania, moving from one old boom town to another, now long after the booms had busted. I was stunned. I had never seen the kind of poverty I saw there: streets denuded of trees, old businesses boarded up, homes falling into ruin yet still occupied, others condemned. I don’t know what it would have been like to meet those people, though I suppose they would have been very like those in my own county, that had gone through the same boom and bust, but with a little more of a boom and a little less of a bust.
Now imagine that you are visiting a little place out west that the local train conductor says is just a speck on the map. It’s called Black Rock. You want to stop there to find an old Japanese man named Komoko. He had traveled far from his native country to settle in America, and he’d bought a strip of land that the seller, Reno Smith, a man filled with malevolence against the Japanese, supposed was entirely worthless. But Komoko had had more perseverance than Smith had. He dug a well sixty feet deep and hit water, and thus was he ready to farm — except that Smith roused up the rabble of Black Rock to teach him a lesson, by burning down his house. Komoko was killed in the fire. And the sheriff of Black Rock, intimidated by Smith and his two chief thugs, did nothing about it. The secret has settled into the people of Black Rock like a slow moral poison. Everyone knows; no one speaks; and now you arrive, a visitor, wholly ignorant of what you are getting into, and you’re looking for Komoko, because his son, fighting on the American side in World War II, saved your life. You want to give Komoko the medal that the boy, who fell in the war, earned from a grateful country. And everybody in Black Rock has his or her eye on you. They are all afraid that you will discover the secret and reveal it to the world outside — for there is a world outside, and it has laws against such things as murder.
”Bad Day at Black Rock,” our Film of the Week, could have been a merely preachy movie about racial bigotry, but it isn’t. It is a morality play, and in just over eighty minutes, the director John Sturges and a trio of writers show us what happens to a variety of human souls when an evil is left unacknowledged, to fester. Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan at his coolly villainous and intelligent best, cannot simply laugh off the wrong he has done; he must justify it in his mind, and that makes him worse and worse. His henchman Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine, who won the Oscar this same year for his wonderfully poignant portrayal of the lonely hero of Marty) becomes a man who delights in cruelty — and who attempts to murder the dangerous visitor to Black Rock. The intimidated sheriff (Dean Jagger) gets drunk to dull his shame. The doctor (Walter Brennan) does not lose his moral sense, but it sours in him, and he has grown cynical. The most beautiful girl in town, Liz (Anne Francis), seems to have as bad a conscience about Komoko’s murder as does her brother Pete (John Ericson), but she tries to play both sides, seeming to help the newcomer, while betraying him into the hands of Reno Smith.
And the newcomer? A one-armed man named John J. Macreedy — who has seen far more of the world than anybody in Black Rock has seen, and who has learned about both the basic decency of human beings everywhere you find them, and about the evil they are capable of doing. Wartime may well do that to you. Macreedy is played by Spencer Tracy, and you need not fear that he’s just going to be a stand-in for What All Enlightened People Believe — as he is in several of his later movies, such as the brilliant but dishonest Inherit the Wind (1960). Tracy, at his very frequent best, was the kind of actor who never seemed to be acting, except on those rare occasions when he was required to fake a foreign accent, which he wasn’t that good at doing. Whatever may have been the moral quandaries of his life in Hollywood, Spencer Tracy could portray, perhaps better than anyone among his peers, a moral wisdom born of honest and sorrowful experience: see him, for example, as the morally compromised father in Edward, My Son (1949).
The people of Black Rock do not want to move one inch or one moment from their moral self-imprisonment. Penitence would have set them free. But the traveler came instead.
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