I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Bad Day at Black Rock

A reader named Stephen A., and probaly some other people in the past, have been reminding me to watch BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, a classic 1955 badass picture from director John Sturges (THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQ). So I finally did. Thanks guys.

In a weird way the opening kind of reminded me of a great late ’80s, early ’90s action movie, because it’s widescreen with this train coming and SPENCER TRACY and everybody else’s names are in huge letters that fill almost the whole screen. Just like it would say STEVEN SEAGAL if that train was from UNDER SIEGE 2 PART 2: DARKER TERRITORY.

Bad Day at Black RockOur boy Spencer plays a mysterious stranger who comes into a tiny little turd of a town in the middle of nowhere. The movie takes place in the ’50s but it’s alot like a little old western town. And kind of depressing to me in the same way as those towns we have now where when you go into town all you find is a bland little strip mall identical to the strip malls in every other part of the country. The town is so small that everybody in it comes out to watch this guy get off the train, which they say hasn’t stopped there in 4 years. So watching it stop is like watching the Olympics I guess.

Spencer is not some drifter like Clint. He came on a specific mission. We just don’t know what that mission is yet. He has a suit, a fedora and a briefcase. And only one arm. He is coy about what the hell he’s doing there, I figured he was a detective investigating some crime, and the whole town obviously wants him to just get the fuck out. But they won’t say it in so many words, they just try to stare at him and make him uncomfortable.

And it’s a hell of a group of people to be intimidated by. The guy who turns out to be the top villain is Robert Ryan, and his top thugs are Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. It quickly becomes clear that the rest of the town, including the sherriff, are scared of these guys and helping to conceal some crime. And some of them (especially the sherriff) are completely ashamed of it. And there’s a doctor who talks kind of like Alan Alda.

Unfortunately I already SPOILER knew that Spencer Tracy was gonna know karate in this movie. I know it because Steven Seagal used to always mention this movie when defending his status as an actor, asking if Spencer Tracy is no longer an actor after playing a one-armed karate expert in this movie. But still, I love the way they don’t let on what an asskicker he is until well into the movie when Ernest Borgnine forces him to unleash it. You could tell he was tough because he didn’t seem to have much fear. He wasn’t really talking trash or anything, but he would be a little bit of a wiseass and would pretend to not understand as people were threatening him. But in the bar Borgnine is bullying him and trying to provoke him, and obviously not expecting much because the guy has one arm. But then with a handful of karate moves he manages to knock the hell out of Borgnine (and knock the bastard through a door). To everyone who has been singing the praises of this as a great badass scene in the history of badass scenes: you were right.

This is a very slow-paced movie that might kill some modern action fans. It’s a slow boil. They used to have those. That bar fight is almost like Takeshi Kitano in the way it’s a sudden and quick burst of violence. There has been this threat all throughout the movie but when the shit suddenly goes down it’s surprising. There’s a car chase at one point and a molotov cocktail, but most of the movie is about talking and smoldering.

What I like best about the movie is how it slowly reveals what’s really going on. It turns out Spencer Tracy could’ve left at the beginning if the townspeople hadn’t freaked him out by acting so suspicious of him. But it’s a good thing he stayed because his mission is very personal and noble, and it hits on a type of prejudice that was not commonly acknowledged in movies in those days.

I didn’t get a chance to listen to the whole film historian commentary track, but the beginning is pretty good. He makes a good argument for this being the type of movie I love most: entertaining b-movie type story but with an unexpected substance at the center. And if you enjoy one-armed karate experts, well, this has one. Merry Christmas.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 11th, 2007 at 11:25 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Thriller, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

25 Responses to “Bad Day at Black Rock”

  1. Spencer Tracy *is* the lone arm of the law.

    is how my review of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK would read.
    According to my googling, no one else has ever used this clever wordplay.

    Vern, you can have that Seagalogical blurb for the next time you’re on twitter and you see some ignorant conversation going on about the origins of handicapped karate on film and you need to mention this fantastic John Sturges movie.

  2. Wait – when was this reviewed? ‘Suppose you tell me where to sit…’ One of my favourites, especially with the unsentimental way it deals with some characters (the woman, the lawman, the undertaker). Can’t get the bastard thing on DVD over here. Bah. John Sturges makes excellent tough guy movies (ICE STATION ZEBRA anyone?). Also, Ernest Borgnine.

  3. The way Spencer Tracy breaks down the young hotel manager/telephone operator — with mere words — is more severe than the physical beating he gives Ernest Borgnine.

    It’s a struggle for an elder war hero probing, articulating, & indignantly squashing the ignorance of a young fella, so there’s probly something to be said for generational differences there, too, similar to FIRST BLOOD’s overriding thematic conflict between the Korean War vet Sheriff & Vietnam War vet drifter-badass.

  4. I always recommend this movie to people (it’s on TCM almost every week). It has a very good director of course, and even better actors, but it’s still a very good example (the best?) of cheap and effective movie making. You don’t need a huge budget and 10 000 extras to make an exciting movie.

  5. Sadly, TCM is not available where I live at the moment. But it is fucking great . I discovered many movies on that channel. And also, Sturges movies rule in my book. BADDAY AT BLACK ROCK,NEVER SO FEW,THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE and even THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. In short, if Sturges is listed as director, I should probably watch it.

  6. I honestly didn’t care for THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. Too bland for me personally.

    Only 2 notable things about it I remember:

    (1) that it was a WW2 story set in not so neutral “neutral” Ireland
    (2) the Michael Caine Nazi gang’s plot fails when they got out on a limb to do the right thing.

  7. RRA, a couple of things about your memory;
    1. It’s set in the not at all neutral England.
    2. Michael Caine’s “gang” are not nazis at all, and they’re doing a very wrong thing.
    I’m with Shoot on this. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED rules!

  8. Sturges had a few actors that he used again and again, like Bronson, Tracy and Lancaster, but sadly he only got to do one movie with Eastwood (Joe Kidd).

  9. What´s also sad is that Joe Kidd is not exactly my favourite Eastwood or Sturges. It´s not bad but i don´t remember anything special about it. Shame,really.

  10. pegsman – (1) Thanks for the correction (2) No they were just Nazi German agents out to assassinate Churchill. I know the movie and book painted Caine’s character as a “Good German” but none the less their plan went to shit when one of their members saved that girl.

    Shoot – Agree. Don’t forget that Elmore Leonard scripted that movie too. I mean a Holy Trinity of Awesome behind that movie and….THAT’S IT?

  11. There is a differnce between “German” and “Nazi”, but you’re right about the details…

  12. pegsman – They were on a Nazi-ordered mission that if successful would’ve helped the Nazi war effort by killing one of the Allied Powers’ leaders, a mission that Caine was hellbent on following and completing to his very end.

  13. The Original... Paul

    May 25th, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    I’ve had “Bad Day” on my “to watch” list for years, but never have. I gotta remedy that.

    They made a movie out of Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed” (classic novel by the way, easily his best)? Dayum, that’s a gap in my film knowledge right there.

  14. RRA, Steiner and his men are based on real characters, and if you think back at the beginning of the movie they are court-martialled for their anti nazi sentiments. Just saying. But you’re right of course in saying that they’re the bad guys in this story. JR Ewing and D.B. Cooper are the heroes.

    Paul, you should check it out. It’s a really good film too.

  15. pegsman – A bit offtopic, but I have to ask. Is THE HEROES OF TELEMARK a big movie in Norway?

  16. Shoot, it’s big in the sense that it was Kirk Douglas’ second movie made here in Norway (THE VIKINGS, 1958) and that he and his son Michael, who travelled with him, both had good things to say about our country in later interviews. But the movie itself takes too many liberties with historical facts to be taken serious. There’s talk of a remake of the 1948 Norwegian movie THE BATTLE OF THE HEAVY WATER, possibly from the guys who made MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR, that I think will be much more accurate

  17. Speaking of scandinavian visits by movie stars, I remember an interview with Tim Robbins on Conan O´Brien or maybe Letterman where he had no good things to say about his visit in Sweden. I wish I could find the video.

  18. Yeah, I guess it’s easier to find videos of arrogant Americans (I’m looking at you Lou Reed and Frank Zappa) talking trash about Scandinavia.

  19. Also if a movie was made about the swedish participation in the war, it would consist of two things:

    !) A lot of politicians talking

    2) A lot of german tanks passing by the talking politicians.

  20. Hey, haven’t you seen THE BORDER (Gränsen)?

  21. I have been meaning too, but never got around. Thanks for the reminder!

  22. It’s a cool little movie, even if it’s pure fiction.

  23. I´ll check it out sometime.

  24. I read some trivia for BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and it turns out Sturges shot the movie in just three weeks, using the first take of almost every scene. Not bad with the notoriously difficult Lee Marvin and the hard drinking Tracy on board.

  25. Shows perhaps that Sturges could really handle people (unlike some certain Swedish directors I could think of…)which elevate him as a director in my opinion.

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