Bad Day At Black Rock (1955

Bad Day at Black Rock
Spencer Tracy and Ernest Borgnine

'Bad Day at Black Rock' is a classic thriller movie made in 1955, directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Walter Brennan. It has a Western backdrop and contains elements of both the Western and film noir genres with its story of dark secrets from the past.

The storyline of the film takes place over just 24 hours and the plot is very tightly constructed. The movie is exciting and expertly acted by a top class cast led by the wonderful Spencer Tracy. It received three Academy Award nominations - Tracy for Best Actor, John Sturges for Best Director, and Millard Kaufman for Best Screenplay - but lost out in all three categories to 'Marty' whose Best Actor Oscar went to Tracy's co-star, Ernest Borgnine. Tracy's performance did win him the Best Actor Award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. The tension and drama of the movie are emphasised and reinforced by the compelling music, composed by Andre Prévin.

The film can be interpreted on different levels. The message on the surface is that one man of integrity, can, single-handedly (quite literally) make a difference against laziness and complacency. It can also be seen as an allegory of the McCarthy era when many people in Hollywood were outed and blacklisted as communist sympathisers. It is also a statement about the appalling treatment of Japanese-Americans in the USA during the Second World War.

The combination of taut script, solid directing of a brilliant cast, powerful score and outstanding Cinemascope photography combine to elevate 'Bad Day at Black Rock' to a place among the classic films.


The action of the movie takes place just after the end of World War II and revolves round the sudden appearance of John J. Macreedy, a one-armed ex-army man, played by Spencer Tracy, who appears unexpectedly in Black Rock, a remote California desert town. The townspeople resent his appearance although at first we do not know why. Director John Sturges slowly and cleverly notches up the tension and Tracy and the audience eventually learn the town's dark secret as the film reaches its exciting and deadly climax.


The storyline was taken from a short story, "Bad Day at Hondo," by Howard Breslin, a novelist and radio scriptwriter writing originally under the pseudonym Michael Niall. The story was published in "American Magazine" in 1945 and was seen by Actor/Director Don McGuire. He purchased an option on the story for $15,000 and wrote a screenplay adaptation.
Dore Schary, the new head of MGM after Louis B. Mayer's departure, was given McGuire's screenplay and liked the idea of mixing a "message" movie about the persecution of Japanese Americans with what was effectively, a Western. He consulted with MGM screenwriter, Millard Kaufman who agreed to make a workable movie screenplay.

Schary was looking for a suitable script for one of MGM's biggest stars, Spencer Tracy. When Tracy read Breslin's original story he was not impressed and only when Schary came up with the idea of giving Macreedy only one usable arm did Tracy begin to show interest. He also warmed to his karate/judo scene with Ernest Borgnine. What finally convinced Tracy to take the role was the story that Dore Schary made up that Alan Ladd wanted the role.

Kaufman's tightly constructed screenplay was markedly different from both McGuire's screenplay and Breslin's original story. The name of the town was changed from "Hondo" as John Wayne had made a Western of that name in 1953. Kaufman also created the character, the murderous rancher Reno Smith.

The town set was built at Lone Pine at the foot of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas. A special train was run there by Southern Pacific for the opening and closing sequences. In order to emphasise the bleakness of the town, it was at first decided to have no musical score, but after the first preview this idea was abandoned.

Main Cast

Spencer Tracy ... John J. Macreedy
Robert Ryan ... Reno Smith
Anne Francis ... Liz Wirth
Dean Jagger ... Sheriff Tim Horn
Walter Brennan ... Doc Velie
John Ericson ... Pete Wirth
Ernest Borgnine ... Coley Trimble
Lee Marvin ... Hector David
Russell Collins ... Mr. Hastings
Walter Sande ... Sam

The cast is impressive. Apart from Tracy who had already won two Best Actor Oscars, Robert Ryan is excellent as Reno Smith, the vicious kingpin of the town, well backed up by his menacing henchmen, Ernest Borgnine as Coley Trimble and a young Lee Marvin as the thuggish Hector David. The 'good' elements are also well played by Anne Francis as Liz Wirth and the dependable Walter Brennan as Doc Velie.

Spencer Tracy (1900-67)
"God he was a master. What a master!" was Ernest Borgnine's take on Spencer Tracy. Tracy is regarded as one of the finest actors in the history of Hollywood. He did not have the matinee idol looks of a conventional leading man and he did not need them. His talent for acting and the seemingly effortless ease and consistency of his performances were what made him stand out in his 37 year career.. He was the first actor to win the Best Actor Award in consecutive years (1937 for 'Captains Courageous' and 1938 for 'Boys Town'). In all he was nominated on nine occasions for the Best Actor Award, a record for male stars which he shares with Laurence Olivier.
Robert Ryan(1909-73)
Gives a typically flawless characterization of barely hidden insanity. Ryan studied acting in Hollywood and made his first movie in 1940. After war service as a Marine drill instructor he made his movie breakthrough in 1947 in 'Crossfire' as an anti-Semitic killer, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Most of his distinguished career was spent in playing tough guys or evil criminals, in complete contrast to his liberal, pacifist views.
Anne Francis (1930-2011)
Anne made her movie debut in 1947 and her first leading role was in 'The Blackboard Jungle' in 1955. She made movies regularly for the next four decades as well as becoming a well known television performer.
Dean Jagger (1903-91)
After starting in Silent movies in 1929, Jagger quickly became well known as a dependable character actor. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 'Twelve O'Clock High' in 1947.
Walter Brennan (1894-1974)
Brennan was an American character actor who, although destined never to be a leading man, became one of the most successful supporting actors of Hollywood's Golden Age. He often played the comic relief role of the old-timer sidekick, particularly in Westerns. In the space of five years from 1936 he was nominated four times for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, winning three times, including the first ever such award in 1936 for 'Come and Get It'.
Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)
was an highly successful actor who made over 100 movies in a career lasting over 50 years, and who also forged a parallel and equally successful television career. With his thick-set build and looks of a heavyweight fighter, he was often cast in a secondary role as the gangster or Western heavy as in 'Black Rock', but in the few films where he played the lead he displayed great acting skill and authority. In 1955 he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the lonely Italian butcher Marty Piletti in 'Marty'.
Lee Marvin(1924-87)
After serving in the marines during World War II, Marvin moved to Hollywood in 1950. He became well known for supporting roles in Westerns and war movies and nationally famous in the highly successful 1957-1960 television series 'M Squad'. He became a leading movie actor during the 1960's and won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in 'Cat Ballou' in 1965.


Director ... John Sturges
Producer ... Dore Schary
Distribution company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Screenplay ... Don McGuire, Millard Kaufman
Story ... Howard Breslin
Format ... Technicolor
Initial Release ... 7 January, 1955
Running Time ... 81 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Spencer Tracy
Best Director ... John Sturges
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Millard Kaufman;