Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Law, Heroes and Anti-Heroes, Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine

The story of Bad Day at Black Rock begins when one day a robust, one-armed stranger, named John Macready (Spencer Tracy), descends from the train. “It’s the first time the streamliner stopped here in four years,” says Mr. Hastings (Russel Collins), the stationmaster, “There must be some mistake.” A statement that indicates the nature of the setting as a remote, forgotten, small town.

“This is 1945,” says Pete, “There’s been a war on,” “explaining” why the hotel is all filled up.” Wherever he turns for assistance, he is rebuffed and needled. Most of the actions take place at Sam’s (Walter Sande) Sanitary Bar and Grill. The elderly Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) functions in multiple roles: as notary public, mortician, and veterinarian. The townspeople speculate about the identity of the mysterious stranger who plans to stay “just about 24 hours.” “He’s no salesman,” says Velie, “that’s sure, unless he’s peddling dynamite.” “He can only mean trouble,” says Hector David (Lee Marvin), a vulgar lout. Indeed, Macready’s mission is to locate a Japanese farmer, whose son has died in action, to give him a posthumous war medal.

There is no respect for sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), the representative of the law, a boozy guy with bleary eyes. Seen asleep in the lower bunk of the front cell, the sheriff is imprisoned in his own jail. “I ain’t hankerin’ to get locked in my own jail,” he says.

Macready thought he was a guest, but the sheriff would like to believe “I’m still the host.” There is confusion about his role and the status of the law. Told by Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the actual leader, to do his job, the sheriff asks, “What is my job” “You got the body of a hippo, but the brain of a rabbit, don’t overtax it,” advises Smith. The sheriff has lost not only the town’s respect, but also his own self-esteem. Without the rule of the law, it seems as if “the gorillas have taken over.”

The protagonists’ names are ironic. The sheriff’s name is Tim Horn, ironically an adventurer. The villain is Reno Smith, a name associated with good, MidAmerican values. It’s a nasty town, tormented by hatred and guilt; Smith has infected the whole town with his “bad seed.” Smith explains that the residents are “a little suspicious of strangers,” a “hangover from the old days, the Old West.” “I thought the tradition of the Old West was hospitality,” says Macready. Smith resents the fact that people are always looking for “something in this part of the West.” “To the historian, it’s the ‘Old West.’ To the book writers, it’s the ‘Wild West.’ To the businessman, it’s the ‘Underdeveloped West.'” He admits they are “backward and poor, but this place is our West, and wishes “they’d leave us alone.” Indeed, Macready’s arrival in town changes everything: He is like “a fever, an infection that is spreading.”

Smith’s philosophy is that “a man is as big as the things that make him mad,” and his biggest problem is how to handle rejection. He tried to join the army the day after “those rats” bombed Pearl Harbor, but he failed the physical. For him the idea that there are loyal Japanese-American is “a laugh, they’re mad dogs, scum.” Smith is obsessed with minority group hatred. His reaction to being rejected is perverted, using it as an excuse for capturing the unexpectedly valuable land of a Japanese farmer.

The Japanese farmer got there three months before Pearl Harbor, and made wonders with the sterile and barren land, but he was shipped to one of those relocation centers. The town is responsible for burning out his farm and killing him. Nobody even knew Komako had a son, Joe, let alone a war hero who saved Macready’s life in Italy.

Macready knows “there’re not many places like this in America,” but as far as he is concerned “even one (town) is too many.” A man of action, he is determined to perform “one last duty” before he resigns from the “human race.” Doc thinks Macready would settle down in Los Angeles, “that hot bed of pomp and vanity.” But Macready says he stays on there, because “it’s a good jumping off place–to the Islands, for Mexico, Central Amnerica.”

The stranger is an undesirable element. Macready knows that everybody in town would like him “to die quickly, without wasting too much of your time, or silently, without making you feel too uncomfortably, or thankfully, without making your memories of the occasion too unpleasant.” But playing on their guilt, he says, “It’ll take a lot of whiskey to wash out your gut.”

Gradually, Macready forces Doc and Liz to realize that concealing facts makes them a party to the crime, just as guilty as the committer of crime. Doc is the first to change his mind. “There comes a time, when a man’s just got to do something,” he tells the sheriff. “No man is useless, if he’s got a friend.” “There’s a difference between clinging to the earth and crawling on it,” says Doc.

The dipsomaniac sheriff is a weakling, spiritually broken under the strain of the town’s conspiracy. There is no clear moral center, though Doc Velie serves as an existential undertaker. But the sheriff is not the only one who lacks self-esteem; nobody else does. The film contains that often-used phrase in 1950s films, when Liz says, “Maybe I could have been something, a model, or something.” (Marlon Brando said the same thing, ” I could have been a contender,” in On the Waterfront to his brother). “I’m too little and too late, I lack the muscle.”

Macready is not a conventional Western hero: he is neither young nor attractive. A defeated one-armed man, he suffers from the physical stigma of being crippled. However, he is as silent as a Westerner, quiet, conciliatory, and a man of action but few words. In his violence Macready, repeats methods he had learned in the army, using commando tactics (he demonstrates a vivid lesson in using a Molotov cocktail). In the final showdown, he sets Smith on fire with a blazing gasoline-soaked rag, imitating the army use of napalm.

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