Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock is a 1955 American crime thriller film, directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, that combines elements of the western genre with those of film noir. The supporting cast includes Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine. The cast, although small, had five Academy Award-winning actors (Tracy, Borgnine, Brennan, Jagger, and Marvin).

Bad Day at Black Rock
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955 poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Sturges
Produced byDore Schary
Screenplay byDon McGuire
Millard Kaufman
Based on"Bad Time at Honda"
(1947 short story in The American Magazine)
by Howard Breslin
StarringSpencer Tracy
Robert Ryan
Anne Francis
Dean Jagger
Walter Brennan
Ernest Borgnine
Lee Marvin
Music byAndré Previn
CinematographyWilliam C. Mellor
Edited byNewell P. Kimlin
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • January 7, 1955 (1955-01-07) (United States)
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1,288 ,000[1][2]
Box office$3,788,000[1]

The film tells the story of a mysterious stranger who arrives at a tiny isolated town in a desert of the southwest United States in search of a man. The film was adapted by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman from the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin.[3][4][5][6] The original story had appeared in The American Magazine in January 1947, with full-color illustrations by Robert Fawcett.[7][8]

In 2018, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." [9] [10] [11]


Spencer Tracy and John Ericson in the hotel

In late 1945, one-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off a train at the isolated desert hamlet of Black Rock. It is the first time in four years that the train has stopped there. After Macreedy states he is looking for a man named Komoko, several of the local men become inexplicably hostile. The hotel desk clerk, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), claims he has no vacant rooms. Hector David (Lee Marvin) threatens him. Later, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) informs Macreedy that Komoko, a Japanese-American, was interned during World War II.

Certain that something is wrong, Macreedy sees the local sheriff, Tim Horn (Dean Jagger), but the alcoholic lawman is no help. The veterinarian and undertaker, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), advises Macreedy to leave town immediately, but lets slip that Komoko is dead. Pete's sister, Liz (Anne Francis), rents Macreedy a Jeep. He drives to nearby Adobe Flat, where he finds a homestead burned to the ground, as well as wildflowers. On the way back, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) tries to run Macreedy off the road.

Macreedy tries to leave town, but Liz, having been confronted by her lover Smith earlier, refuses to rent him the Jeep again. Smith comes by. When Smith asks, Macreedy discloses that he lost his left arm fighting in Italy. Macreedy says the wildflowers at the Komoko place lead him to suspect that a body is buried there. Smith reveals that he is virulently anti-Japanese; he tried to enlist the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but failed the physical.

Macreedy tries to telephone the state police, but Pete refuses to put the call through. Doc Velie admits that something terrible happened four years ago and that Smith has everyone too terrified to speak up. Velie offers Macreedy his hearse to leave town, but Hector disables it. Macreedy writes a telegram addressed to the state police and gives it to Hastings (Russell Collins) to send. Trimble picks a fight with him, but Macreedy beats him up. Macreedy tells Smith that he knows Smith killed Komoko and that he was too cowardly to do it alone, so he involved Hector, Pete, and Coley.

In the hotel lobby, Hastings arrives and tries to give Smith a piece of paper, but Macreedy snatches it away. It is his unsent telegram. Macreedy and Velie demand that Horn do something. When he tries, Smith just takes away his badge and pins it on Hector, who casually tears up the telegram.

After Smith and Hector leave, Macreedy reveals that the loss of his arm had left him wallowing in self-pity, but Smith's attempt to kill him has reinvigorated him. Macreedy finally reveals why he is there: Komoko's son died in combat (with the 442nd Infantry Regiment) while saving his life. Macreedy intended to give the man's medal to Komoko.

Macreedy learns that the elder Komoko had leased some farmland from Smith, who was sure there was no water there. Komoko dug a well and found water. After Smith was rejected for military service, he and the other men spent the day drinking, then decided to scare Komoko. The old man barricaded himself inside his home, but the men set it on fire. When Komoko emerged ablaze, Smith shot him.

Pete, Liz and Doc Velie try to help Macreedy escape under cover of darkness. Hector is standing guard outside the hotel; Pete lures him into the office, where Doc Velie knocks him out. Liz drives Macreedy out of town, but stops in a canyon. Macreedy realizes he has been set up. When Smith starts shooting at him, Macreedy shelters behind the Jeep. Liz rushes to Smith despite Macreedy's warning. Smith tells her that she has to die along with the rest of his accomplices. Liz starts to run away, but Smith shoots her in the back. Macreedy finds a bottle and fills it with gasoline from the jeep. When Smith climbs down for a better shot, Macreedy lights and throws the Molotov cocktail, setting Smith on fire.

Macreedy drives back to town with Smith and Liz's body. The state police are called in. As Macreedy is leaving town, Doc Velie requests Komoko's medal to help Black Rock heal. Macreedy gives it to him just before boarding the train. Pete, despite his assistance to Macreedy after the murder of his sister, is among those seen being arrested by the state police.



Robert Fawcett illustrated The American Magazine printing of "Bad Time at Honda", a 1947 short story by Howard Breslin that was adapted for the film.

Bad Day at Black Rock originated as a short story published by The American Magazine entitled "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin in 1947. It was adapted into a script by Don McGuire and pitched to MGM production head Dore Schary. Schary was known for championing films that addressed social problems and had previously produced Go for Broke! (1951), based on the exploits of the segregated Japanese-American 442nd RCT.

Schary acquired the property for MGM, bringing in Millard Kaufman to rewrite McGuire's script.[12]

Schary wanted Spencer Tracy for the leading role. Concerned that Tracy might not accept, Schary ordered the script changed so that Macreedy was a one-armed man. He concluded that no actor would turn down the chance to play a character with a handicap. Kaufman, a World War II Marine platoon leader at age 25, thought Tracy too old for the role of a former platoon leader.[citation needed]

As John Wayne had recently made a film called Hondo, the producers feared that calling their film Bad Day at Honda would confuse filmgoers into thinking they had already seen it. While location scouting in Arizona, Kaufman came upon a post office and gas station collectively known as Black Rock. Kaufman phoned Schary to ask, "Why don't we call it Black Rock? And do it in California?"[citation needed]

Nicholas Schenck, president of Loews Incorporated, MGM's parent company at the time, nearly did not allow the picture to be made because he felt that the story was subversive. The film was seen as a veiled criticism of McCarthyism and the unconstitutional internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.[12]

Just before shooting began, an indecisive Tracy tried to back out of the picture. Schary made clear that he was willing to sue the actor if he quit the film.[13] According to Robert Osborne of the television network Turner Classic Movies, in the introduction to the film's airing on its weekly segment The Essentials, Tracy, weighed down by his growing alcoholism, refused to give MGM an answer. In order to close the deal, according to Osborne, an MGM executive contacted Tracy shortly before filming was to begin and said, "Don't worry, Mr. Tracy, a copy of the script has been sent to Alan Ladd and he has agreed to do the picture." The next day, Tracy committed to Bad Day at Black Rock. Ladd, however, apparently never even saw the script. It turned out to be Tracy's last film for MGM, with the exception of How the West Was Won (1962), for which Tracy supplied the narration.

Bad Day at Black Rock was filmed in Lone Pine, California, and the nearby Alabama Hills, one of hundreds of movies that have been filmed in the area since 1920. The "town" of Black Rock was built for the film in the shadow of the former Manzanar internment camp where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during the war. Nothing remains of the set today, erected one mile north (36°38′2.84″N 118°2′23.74″W / 36.6341222°N 118.0399278°W / 36.6341222; -118.0399278Coordinates: 36°38′2.84″N 118°2′23.74″W / 36.6341222°N 118.0399278°W / 36.6341222; -118.0399278) of the Lone Pine station, a spur off of Southern Pacific Railroad's Jawbone Branch, which served the northern Mojave Desert and Owens Valley.[12]

Preview audiences did not like the original opening sequence. A revised one, showing the speeding train rushing at the camera, replaced it. The shot was taken from a helicopter as it flew away from the moving train. The film was then run in reverse to create the opening shot. Southern Pacific provided the EMD F7 Diesel-electric locomotive and passenger cars in Coast Daylight livery. Southern Pacific charged MGM $5,500 and the cost of 265 round-trip passenger tickets for the charter to Lone Pine, approximately $9.00 USD each for a coach seat at the time.[14]

Another late change to the film was the decision to use an orchestral score. This was commissioned from André Previn.[15]


The screenplay was novelized by the author of the source short story, Howard Breslin. though he chose to do it under the pseudonym "Michael Niall." The publisher was Gold Medal Books, the cover price was 25¢, and per standard practice of the era, the book's release came in advance of the film's release. The publication date on the copyright page is December, 1954, which, again, per standard practice, probably means the book hit the stands sometime earlier in October.

The phenomenon of tie-in novelizations being withheld until after a film's opening is fairly recent and didn't really take hold until home video started mass-converting to digital media. From at least the 1950s through the 1980s and into the 1990s, novelization "spoilers" were not a publication issue and the books were used to drum up advance interest, exactly the same as movie editions of literary sources. Indeed, the text on the back of the paperback edition (there was also a hardcover released in the UK) was written by (or at least credited to) Dore Schary himself; it consists of a brief teaser-description of the story and closes with, "How Macreedy turned to meet the challenge squaurely makes an unforgettable novel, and I hope it will be an equally dramatic motion picture." The text flows around cameo head shots of Spencer Tracy, Anne Francis and, unusually for a tie-in, even Schary.


According to MGM records the film earned $1,966,000 in the US and Canada and $1,822,000 elsewhere, making the studio a profit of $947,000.[1]

Critical responseEdit

Variety magazine's reviewer wrote: "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory. Besides telling a yarn of tense suspense, the picture is concerned with a social message on civic complacency."[16]

Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, also liked it, writing, "Slowly, through a process of guarded discourse, which director John Sturges has built up by patient, methodical pacing of his almost completely male cast, an eerie light begins to glimmer ... Quite as interesting as the drama, which smacks of being contrived, are the types of masculine creatures paraded in this film. Mr. Tracy is sturdy and laconic as a war veteran with a lame arm (which does not hamper him, however, in fighting judo style). Mr. Ryan is angular and vicious as the uneasy king-pin of the town, and Walter Brennan is cryptic and caustic as the local mortician with a streak of spunk. Ernest Borgnine as a potbellied bully (he was Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in From Here to Eternity), Dean Jagger as a rum-guzzling sheriff, Lee Marvin as a dimwitted tough, John Ericson as a nervous hotel clerk and Russell Collins as a station-master are all good, too."[17]

Despite a storyline she called "crudely melodramatic", Pauline Kael heaped praise on the film for its direction and cinematography, calling it "a very superior example of motion picture craftsmanship".[18] Bilge Ebiri considers the film to be "one of the greatest films ever made."[19]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a 97% approval rating based on 29 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.07/10.[20]




Cultural referencesEdit

Allan Sherman's parody song, "The Streets of Miami," has "And that's what they call a bad day at Black Rock!" in the lyrics.

The 1980s television program The A-Team had a season 1 word play title episode called "Black Day at Bad Rock", with a somewhat similar theme of an isolated California desert town, only this one a present-day town threatened by an oncoming biker gang out to free its leader and avenge his imprisonment by destroying the town.

One of the cartoon episodes in the Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection is titled Bad Day at Cat Rock, a pun on the film's title. The cartoon bears no resemblance to the film's plot.

In the seventh season of Thomas & Friends, an episode titled Bad Day at Castle Lock is also a pun on the film's title, though much like Tom & Jerry's Bad Day at Cat Rock, its plot bears no resemblance to the film.

In 1992, the TV series Matlock featured a 2-part episode, "The Outcast," which could be considered a remake of "Bad Day at Black Rock." In the episode, Ben Matlock meets an El Salvadorian immigrant while he is on vacation to go fishing. The young man turns up dead on a farm where he was hired to work, and Matlock runs into similar stonewalling and local hostility, as the MaCreedy character from the film; while attempting to get to the bottom of the case.



  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. ^ Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008 p. 97
  3. ^ Bad Day at Black Rock on IMDb.
  4. ^ "Metro to Stress Big-Budget Films", The New York Times, August 7, 1953
  5. ^ "Metro Eyes Tracy For Western Lead", The New York Times, August 13, 1953
  6. ^ "Author Breslin Succumbs at 51", Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1964
  7. ^ Breslin, Howard, "Bad Time at Honda", The American Magazine, 143: 40
  8. ^ Hitt, Jim (1990), The American West from Fiction (1823-1976) into Film (1909-1986), McFarland, ISBN 978-0-89950-378-3
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  11. ^ "National Film Registry Turns 30". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  12. ^ a b c Niiya, Brian. "Bad Day at Black Rock". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2020-03-27.
  13. ^ Andersen, Christopher P., p. 243
  14. ^ Grace, Michael (2018-08-12). "MGM's Oscar winning Bad Day at Black Rock features the Southern Pacific's Daylight". Retrieved 2020-03-27.
  15. ^ "Bad Day at Black Rock: a savage score". Retrieved 2019-03-08.
  16. ^ Variety. Film review, 1954. Last accessed; February 2, 2008.
  17. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, February 2, 1955. Last accessed: March 18, 2008.
  18. ^ Kael, Pauline (2011) [1991]. 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Henry Holt and Company. pp. 46–47. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  19. ^ Bilge Ebiri [@BilgeEbiri] (17 January 2017). "This is one of the greatest films ever made. You can watch it over and over again" (Tweet). Retrieved 20 January 2017 – via Twitter.
  20. ^ Bad Day at Black Rock at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: July 8, 2019.
  21. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Bad Day at Black Rock". Archived from the original on 2011-08-22. Retrieved 2009-01-31.


External linksEdit