‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (1955): The Spencer Tracy Noir-Western Ahead of its Time

Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A one-armed man arrives in the town of Black Rock – a remote hamlet in the middle of the desert – and is met with hostility and aggression. His presence, while peaceful in nature, poses a threat to the small-minded community and as their suspicion of his agenda spirals into paranoia, he finds himself caught in a do-or-die situation. With the band of thuggish townsmen banding to set upon him, he attempts to get out, meeting resistance at every turn. They are set on killing him at sundown in a desperate bid to keep a dark secret under wraps.

The film is Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy, and its legacy is undeniable. Made in 1955, the film was extraordinarily innovative in daring to combine two seemingly conflicting genres: Western and Noir. Of course in today’s modern age of cinema, multi-genre films are commonplace and we have an expectation of complexity, however in the 1950s the genres stood separate with little consideration to their union. Cowboys are replaced with thugs, horses with cars, and with a 1945 post-war setting, the scene is set for an alternative western where the conventions remain true but the narrative devices are unwonted.

The first striking element of the film is the score by Academy Award-winning composer André Previn (Gigi, My Fair Lady). From the opening frame, with its foreboding low-key introduction, to the startling revelatory high-notes, the music dances in and out of the story and accompanies the events as though it were, itself, a character documenting the unfolding drama. And with a wonderful set design and cinemascope presentation, the look of the film is elevated from being a small one-set piece to a larger-than-life spectacle.

Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tracy’s performance is brilliantly underplayed, presenting his character as an educated man shrouded in mystery. With only one arm (a character re-write made to attract him to the project), he wanders the town looking for a man whose name alone stirs nervousness amongst the townsfolk. The reason for his visit is uncertain, while the cause for the town’s antisocial reception is as equally mystifying, and Tracy plays the role with a skilful demeanour that singlehandedly holds the viewer’s attention. The supporting cast includes Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger and Anne Francis, all of who exemplify the western genre. And with sinister noirish textures underpinning the story, the result is an edgy thriller that feels way ahead of its time.

There is no doubt that Bad Day at Black Rock has inspired countless films over the years; some that come to mind include Wake In Fright, U-Turn and No Country for Old Men. And while those titles were adapted from popular novels, I would suspect that Black Rock was a major cinematic influence. With a short running time of around 80 minutes, the writing is taut and the pacing is consistent. The drama hasn’t the time to subside and the outcome is a concisely crafted western/thriller that remains relevant and maintains its edge after all these years.