Noir Side Street–“Bad Day at Black Rock”

Incoming Day. Photo by Emanuele Toscano.

Today’s film is MGM’s 1955 classic “Bad Day at Black Rock,” starring Spencer Tracy (John Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Sheriff Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David), Russell Collins (Mr. Hastings), and Walter Sande (Sam, the diner owner). Produced by Dore Schary, directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman and Don McGuire (adaptation), from a short story called “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin.

TCM’s host Eddie Muller concedes this isn’t really a noir film; it has noir elements, but it’s more of a combination of genres, which include noir, western, and message stories. However, it’s a highly regarded film and this is Memorial Day weekend, and Eddie wanted to show it. So here we are…

The film opens in 1945, with the Southern Pacific Streamliner–which hasn’t stopped in Black Rock in four years–stopping to let off John Macreedy, who says he’ll only be in town for 24 hours. The townspeople are nonplussed at a stranger showing up and curious as to his reason for coming. It turns out Macreedy’s looking for a Japanese man named Komoko, who lives in nearby Adobe Flat. They soon make it clear they regard the stranger as an unwelcome guest, particularly since he’s digging around about Komoko. You see, the townspeople have a secret, and Komoko seems to be at the center of it.

Macreedy manages to hire a Jeep from Liz Wirth and drives out to Adobe Flat, only to find the farmstead where Komoko lived burned down to the ground and wildflowers growing in an area near the well.

As he’s driving back to Black Rock, Macreedy is run off the road by Coley Trimble. Once back in Black Rock, Macreedy makes it clear he’s ready to leave town, but the townspeople prevent him going. Doc Velie tells him they’re going to kill him, but they won’t do it before dark. Mac tries to phone the State Police but is told the lines are all busy. Doc tries to help him get out of town, but they’ve sabotaged his hearse. And when Mac tries to wire the State Police, the telegrapher doesn’t bother to send it; but, instead, gives it to Smith.

Can Macreedy escape certain death? You’ll have to watch the film to learn the answer to that question.

My definition of noir is pretty expansive, but this didn’t seem to meet it for me. While it’s a good film (Oscar-nominated, even!), it just isn’t noir. Because of that, it just doesn’t seem right to give it any unfiltered cigarette puffs.

Next week’s film is a noir classic, “Out of the Past.” If you haven’t seen it, you’ll want to.

As always, this is an open thread, so discuss whatever you like down in the comments below.

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