Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) Noir meets the Modern Western - Film Soleil

Film Soleil, those sun baked, filled with light, desert/tropical Noir/Neo Noirs.

"Change the darkened street to a dry, sun-beaten road. Convert the dark alley to a highway mercilessly cutting through a parched, sagebrush-filled desert. Give the woman cowboy boots and stick her in a speeding car, driven by a deranged man whose own biological drives lead him less often to sex than to fights over money. Institute these changes [to film noir] and you have film soleil." - DK Holm

In the city it's usually what you can't see that can kill you. In the desert everything you see can kill you.

Directed by John Sturges (Mystery Street (1950), The People Against O'Hara (1951)). written by Millard Kaufman (screenplay), Don McGuire (adaptation) from the story Bad Time At Hondo by Howard Breslin. The film stars Spencer Tracy (The People Against O'Hara (1951)), Robert Ryan (11 Classic Noir), Anne Francis, Dean Jagger (Dark City (1950), Private Hell 36 (1954)), Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine (The Mob (1951), Violent Saturday (1955)), Russell Collins, Lee Marvin (The Big Heat (1953), Violent Saturday (1955), I Died a Thousand Times (1955), Shack Out on 101 (1955)) and the spectacular panoramas of DEATH VALLEY which are breathtaking thanks to the absolutely beautiful CinemaScope cinematography of William C. Mellor. AndrĂ© Previn composed the score.

Desert, the anti-city. Wide open spaces, exposed, agoraphobia. A streamliner is snaking. A steel sidewinder.


Black Rock. Nowheresville. A Death Valley desert fly speck. Whistle stop. Somewhere on the California/Nevada border. The Southern Pacific RR. A dirt road main street. A baker's dozen collection of dilapidated buildings. The station. The beanery, Sam's Bar & Grill.  A General Store abutting a barber shop. A two story hotel. A sawbones/morticians, a gas station, two residences and a rinky-dink hoosegow.

It must be Saturday. Hicksville. Everybody's in town. Cowboy porch lizards. Relaxin'. Shootin' the breeze. Waitin' for the Streamliner to blow through. She's Greased lightning. Like clockwork. The day's big excitement. A faint rumble. The train's a comin'. You can hear the drone of the F7's down the valley. The pitch changes. The horn blares. Station agent excited. She's stopping. A train hasn't stopped here in four years. What's up. Lizards all rubbernecking.

Black Rock

fly speck
Cowboy porch lizards

Doc Velie (Brennan)
A man gets off. Looks like a city slicker. Suit, tie, fedora, suitcase. A Stranger. Ex career vet. A one hand man, Macreedy (Tracy).

Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher: There must be some mistake. I'm Hastings, the telegraph agent. Nobody told me this train was stopping.
John J. Macreedy: They didn't?
Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher: No, I just told you they didn't. And they ought to. What I want to know is why didn't they?
John J. Macreedy: Maybe they didn't think it was important.
Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher: Important? It's the first time the streamliner's stopped here in four years.

John J. Macreedy: I want to go to a place called Adobe Flat. Are there any cabs available?
Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher: Adobe Flat?
John J. Macreedy: Yeah.
Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher: No cabs.

There must be some mistake? (Tracy & Collins)
Adobe Flat! The name raises bristles. He's lookin' fer Komoko. It stirs the hornet's nest. The lizards get standoff-ish. Hostile. Downright rantankerous.  The shit hits the fan. Oh Komoko, the Jap, he left town they tell him, sent to an internment camp.

Macreedy & Smith (Tracy & Ryan)
They telephone the biggest toad in their pond Reno Smith (Ryan). But the cat's already out of the bag. Something is wrong, slantindicular, cattywampus. Macreedy knows they're bullshittin'. But he doesn't know why.

Reno Smith: I believe a man is as big as what he's seeking. I believe you're a big man, Mr. Macreedy.
John J. Macreedy: Flattery will get you nowhere.
Reno Smith: Why would a man like you be looking for a lousy Jap farmer?
John J. Macreedy: Ohhh, dadgum, maybe I'm not so big.
Reno Smith: Oh yes you are. I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to get you mad.
John J. Macreedy: What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?
Reno Smith: Me? Nothing, nothing...
John J. Macreedy: Ah, you're a pretty big man yourself, then. Yet the... the Japanese make you mad, don't they?
Reno Smith: Well, that's different. After that sneak attack on Pearl Harbor...
John J. Macreedy: Komoko made you mad.
Reno Smith: It's the same thing. Loyal Japanese-Americans, that's a laugh. They're all mad dogs. What about Corregidor, the death march?
John J. Macreedy: What did Komoko have to do with Corregidor?
Reno Smith: He was a Jap, wasn't he?

Macreedy rents a jeep. Gets directions. Drives to Adobe Flats. House turned black. Burned. Spots a grave.

Adobe Flats
Cowboy Coley (Borgnine) is glassing Macreedy from a boulder patch. He ambushes him on the way back to town. Tries to run him off the road. Back in town Coley is still trying to provoke, trying to raise sand. 

Road Rage Western Style

The film gradually reveals, through some very deliberate pacing by Director Sturges, that almost all of the townies are in cahoots with Komoko's murder. It seems that on the day after Pearl Harbor Reno Smith went into Sand City to enlist, he was rejected. He goes on a bender.  He gets a handful of the townies corned up. They go out to Komoko's. A lynch mob.  Komoko locks himself in. They burn his house. He runs out on fire. Smith shoots him dead. The sheriff does nothing. The rest of the town clams up.

The conspirators 

Spencer Tracy goes from stoically laconic to determinedly obsessed as the odds and the towns alienation build against him. Robert Ryan's unfriendly persuasion streaks more vicious as the truth is slowly exposed. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin are the two town bullies both are a few cards short of a full deck. Dean Jagger the town lawman and Walter Brennan a sawbones/mortician are the town drunks. John Ericson is a fidgety hotel keeper and Anne Francis servers as the film's nominal femme fatale.

Liz (Anne Francis)
Rather than stark black and white contrasts and Dutch angles this Film Soleil uses subtle clashing colors, high and low angles, compositions, reflections and diagonals to enhance moods and emotions. A red/green clashing motif signifies, unease and apprehension that something is slightly off, is especially apparent in the hotel interiors. High and low angle perspectives enhance or detract the importance, significance, or power of various characters or places. The high angles of the opening sequence enhances the insignificance of Black Rock. Diagonals -off kilter. Reflections can show contemplative characters, complexity or duplicity. Compositions also define characters and enhance Macreedy's exposure.

Red/Green motif

High/Low Angles




The tide turns as slowly Macreedy bests the conspirators and persuades the doc and the sheriff, to admit their cowardice and hypocrisy and the partially guilty hotel clerk to tell him the truth about what happened to Komoko at Adobe Flats. The whole shebang goes sour quick.

Doc T.R. Velie: Four years ago something terrible happened here. We did nothing about it, nothing. The whole town fell into a sort of settled melancholy and all the people in it closed their eyes, and held their tongues, and... failed the test with a whimper. And now something terrible's going to happen again -- and in a way we're lucky, because we've been given a second chance.


The film juxtaposes the high desert grit of a weathered bleached bones town against a backdrop of astonishing but desolate beauty. The film has a fascinating Edward Hopperesque realism look to it. This was MGM's first release in Cinemascope. Screencaps are from the Warner Brothers DVD. 10/10


  1. Hi, CigarJoe.

    Excellent review of this movie and wonderful photographs.

    This is one of my favourite movies of all time.

  2. One of your best reviews yet Joe, and that says a bit. Most people forget Films Soleil as a superb sub-genre - Keep em comin