My reaction to Bad Day at Black Rock is a guarded one. It runs eighty-one minutes and is frequently long when it should be short and short when it should be long. The conclusion, for instance, is something of a misfire. Ironically, after abandoning him for fifteen minutes near the beginning, the film sticks with Spencer Tracy. So the audience misses characters going through huge (and somewhat unlikely) changes.
It’s a strange problem; even though the film has a great supporting cast, it doesn’t have any other principles besides Tracy. Characters become more and less important as the running time progresses. For example, Robert Ryan’s got a lot to do for the first twenty minutes or so, but once his character is clearly defined, he fades into the background a little.
Some of that fading might be Sturges’s fault. While his Cinemascope composition is fantastic–he has this one scene with six people standing around talking and it’s just startling, the figures, dressed brightly even, contrasting the blue, cloudy sky–it’s all very wide. There are almost no close-ups in the film or even medium shots. Sturges is using all of that wide frame and people can get lost.
But the script has its own problems. Mainly Tracy’s character–he keeps changing, as the script keeps unveiling backstory revelations–and with a longer running time, it might work. The film really just needs more time, not just for Tracy, but to make the longish parts seem less plodding.
Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Millard Kaufman, adaptation by Don McGuire, based on a story by Howard Breslin; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Newell P. Kimlin; music by André Previn; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (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).