Q&A “Bad Day at Black Rock”

Classic Film for Movie Night: Bad Day at Black Rock

A tale of post World War II prejudice packs a wallop.
By Mark R. Gould

Coley: I’m half-hoss, half-alligator. You mess with me and I’ll kick a lung outta ya. Whaddya think of that?
Macreedy: No comment.

Coley: You know, talkin’ to you is like pullin’ teeth. You wear me out. You’re a yellow-bellied Jap lover. Am I right or wrong?
Macreedy: You’re not only wrong – you’re wrong at the top of your voice.

Coley: You don’t like my voice?
Macreedy: [To Smith] I think your friend is trying to start trouble.

Smith: Why ever would he want to do that?
Macreedy: Well, I don’t know. Maybe he thinks that if he needles me enough, I might crack. I might even fight back. And then either he or your other ape sittin’ over there could beat me to death and cop a plea of self-defense.

Smith: I don’t think that’ll be necessary. You’re so scared now you’ll probably drown in your own sweat.
Coley: No, before that happens, couldn’t I pick a fight with you if I tied one hand behind me…?

This tale of post-World War II anti-Japanese prejudice was well ahead of its time. Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed former platoon leader trying to track down the father of a deceased Japanese-American soldier. The soldier saved Tracy’s life in combat in Italy. Tracy believes it is his duty to give the son’s medal to the father.  This powerful film is directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Old Man and the Sea, and The Great Escape), and it is among his best.

This is the fourth in a series of articles about classic films  that you can screen at family movie night or for your movie group.

Actor Robert RyanTracy (John Macreedy) steps off a passenger train at Black Rock, a desolate and dying community. He is an outsider and the few residents of this town are immediately suspicious of him. His ‘welcoming committee’ includes one of the greatest assembly of movie thugs ever to appear in one film. Robert Ryan, left,  is the smooth talking leader, Reno Smith,  and his crew, Ernest Borgnine (Coley) and Lee Marvin (Hector). Others in the film include Dean Jagger, (the cowardly sheriff) Walter Brennan (the town doctor), Anne Francis as Reno Smith’s sister, and John Ericson, as the hotel clerk.

MGM studio head Dore Schary (1905-80), (Sunrise at Campobello, The SetupThey Drive by Night ), was one of the key forces behind the project. He was well known for his message movies. He thought this one combined a powerful theme with a ‘one man against the world’ excitement that had helped make popular such recent  films as Shane with Alan Ladd and High Noon with Gary Cooper.

Glenn Lovell, author of Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges (University of Wisconsin Press), writes: “MGM president Nicholas Schenck, already fuming over Schary’s endorsement of Adlai Stevenson for president and his leftist politics in general, ordered Schary to cease  pre-production. Schary’s response: ‘I refused to take the picture off the schedule and told Schenck he could fire me or I would quit if he went over my head and ordered the studio not to do the picture.’” Millard Kaufman wrote the screenplay with a first draft by Don McGuire, who found the story. The story, Bad Day at Honda was written by Howard Breslin.

But just as production started to move forward, Spencer Tracy decided to withdraw from the film. Tracy didn’t like the tough Western location, and thought he was too old to play a platoon leader, usually a younger man in his 20s. Tracy was 54.

So the studio decided to make the character more appealing—a one armed man. “Tracy liked the idea of the one armed paladin who rides in to town and, his voice no more than a whisper, demands justice for a war hero and his father,” writes Lovell.  But Tracy still had his doubts.

To influence him, the studio falsely leaked the story that Alan Ladd would take over the role.The ruse worked. Tracy phoned back, “Get rid of Ladd—I’ll do the picture.”

The film received  three Oscar nominations for Tracy, the screenwriter, and director Sturges.

Released in 1955, some say Bad Day at Black Rock was a comment about McCarthyism and blacklisting. Schary was a fearless opponent of the Hollywood blacklist. But Sturges said it wasn’t so.  However, when Macreedy says, “The rule of law has been suspended in this town—the gorillas have taken over,”  the message is clear.

Glenn Lovell, author of Escape Artist, the life and films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, offered  his thoughts about  this powerful film to the at your library.org web site recently.

Mark Gould: Is this an example of Western film noir?

Glenn Lovell: Not in my book. Noir is about shadows, paranoia … people rushing to embrace a dark fate. “Black Rock” couldn’t be further from this paradigm: It’s a stranger-stands-his-ground-against-inhospitable-town yarn a la Shane and, later, In the Heat of the Night. There are also elements of High Noon, those Aristotelian unities of time and place.

MG: Seems like a very progressive film for the era. How did the film get developed?

GL: MGM’s Dore Schary (a left-leaning message guy) championed the project; it wouldn’t have gotten made without Schary’s dogged commitment. According to screenwriter Millard Kaufman, Richard Brooks, who was originally assigned to the project, attempted to sabotage it … and almost talked Spencer Tracy out of the Macreedy lead.

MG: Did the studio have problems with the content, try to tone it down?

GL: No, not once the project was green-lighted. The only concern was about the fight in coffee shop between Borgnine and Tracy the censors feared that kids might emulate the deadly martial arts. The fight was much bloodier in the script.

MG: Spencer Tracy had second thoughts about the film. How did they get him to commit?

GL: Tracy thought he was too old to be playing a war vet in 1945-46. He also hated the idea of going on location. According to scenarist Kaufman, who was a huge help on my book, they got Tracy to commit by saying, “Never mind Spence, Alan Ladd wants the role.” It was a ploy; Ladd was never approached about the role.

MG: I would say that it has one of the best casts of character actors ever assembled. Was there competition between them?

GL: You’re right, it has one of the most amazing ensembles ever assembled. With the exception of Robert Ryan, who played the chief heavy, Oscar winners and Oscar winners-to-be: Tracy (2 Oscars), Borgnine (1), Marvin (1), Brennan (3), and Dean Jagger (1) – that’s eight Oscars among them. From all reports there was a lot of drinking, especially by Marvin. This, plus the high altitude, made for short-fuses. Tracy and Brennan, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, were constantly at each other; Tracy and Ryan and Tracy and leading lady Anne Francis also had falling outs … Borgnine seemed to be the only person who got along with everyone.

MG: Did Sturges look for films with a social message?

GL: No. He couldn’t have been further from a pretentious, socially conscious Stanley Kramer. Like Howard Hawks and others, he saw himself as an entertainer first and foremost; it was all about strong characters and a compelling story.

screenshot- fight scene from Bad Day at Black RockMG: Karate must have seemed very exotic in the mid 1950s. How did it get into the film?

GL: Screenwriter Kaufman, a former Marine, used karate-judo to give the one-armed Macreedy an edge. Martial arts were popular with the military and law enforcement after the war, and found their way into movies by Sam Fuller and others who had served overseas. According to a studio memo used to assuage the Catholic League of Decency: “There are judo instruction places all through Los Angeles. It is of course taught in all branches of the armed service, and what is shown in ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ is elemental judo … The opening wallop on the neck is really no different than a blow by the fist to the Adam’s apple.”

MG: Did that scene stun audiences? It stunned me.

GL: According to audience polls conducted at three sneak previews, viewers rated the café fight very high. Many found it the best thing about the picture.

MG: Was the message about intolerance top of mind with critics or was the film considered just a good action film?

GL: The reviews were pretty favorable overall, and many critics picked up on the film’s anti-racism message as well as the superb use of the new Cinemascope aspect ratio.

MG: What did critics then think about this film? How about today?  I would argue this is one of Sturges’ most important films. What do you think?

GL: Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave it a begrudging thumbs up, but then he never had much nice to say about Sturges, who remembered this slight to the end. Just about every critic today agrees this is Sturges’s strongest film. A number of filmmakers, including Ron Howard, have considered remaking it. William Friedkin told me, “I love everything about that film- the little guy in the black suit and his hand in his pocket, the aura of dread … the bar fight. That’s probably the best bar fight ever. It’s a thriller that’s about something.”

Visit your local library to find out more about Bad Day at Black Rock.  Here are some resources to get you started:

Escape Artist, the life and films of John Sturges
By Glenn Lovell, University of Wisconsin Press

Heyday By Dore Schary

Related resources on atyourlibrary.org

One Response to “Q&A “Bad Day at Black Rock””

  1. Iron Fist – Bar the Big Boss (Review) | the m0vie blog Says:

    […] Censors were apparently concerned about the use of martial arts in Bad Day at Black Rock, worried that kids might try to emulate the antics of the gruff one-armed hero played by Spencer Trac…. There would always be a whiff of moral panic around the response to martial arts on film, the […]


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