Bad Day at Black Rock

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The one versus the many is one of several themes in the 1955 motion picture, Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy. Portraying a one-armed war veteran in 1945 pursuing a simple yet honorable act, best left unstated for those who haven’t seen it, Tracy is more restrained than usual in another stern performance. He plays a mysterious man from Los Angeles who steps off a train in remote Black Rock looking for a missing farmer in a place called Adobe Flats, setting off a chain reaction among Black Rock’s residents. The stranger slowly pieces together the puzzle of what might have happened to the farmer, gathering clues about the disappearance as he surreptitiously tracks each person’s moral stature, from pure evil to those with a capacity for good and everyone in between.

With an unforgettable showdown evoking a scene from a Western saloon, an edge-of-the-seat car chase, and involving characters as a microcosm of any morally mixed society that condones and sanctions acts of evil, Bad Day at Black Rock can’t be beat for exciting, stimulating action, drama and repeat viewings. See Robert Ryan as Black Rock’s smooth, charismatic leader, Lee Marvin as his top thug, Hector, Ernest Borgnine as his thick, meaty backup, see-no-evil Russell Collins in charge of the town’s telegraph, Dean Jagger as an alcoholic sheriff, Walter Brennan in one of his most engaging roles as a doctor prone to poetry, and John Ericson as a young, impressionable hotel clerk with the late Anne Francis as his sister in a crucial role.

Spencer Tracy’s stranger faces each person, one by one, sizing up their motives and measuring their worth with such precision that he knows precisely what to do when the time comes. When it does, the lid blows off the whole blasted town for one helluva bad day. Especially relevant in our declining America, Bad Day at Black Rock, like Tracy’s sterling Judgment at Nuremberg, asks whether we can hold an entire society accountable for its actions (yes, we can), shows how to purge the bad and rebuild the good and dramatizes the supremacy of the individual over the collective, in many ways on multiple levels. For decades leftists have praised this movie because they say it’s an argument against racism, and, on a certain level, it is. But Bad Day at Black Rock, a contrived movie which strains credulity, is primarily an exciting and unusual argument against the cause of racism, collectivism, dramatizing how just following orders and tradition is impractical because it is immoral and how the pursuit of justice is an intimately personal, selfish virtue.

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