The geography for the stage of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in 1945) is a massive barbell, choked in the middle by the single street of Black Rock, opening at either end into dusty orange desert vistas. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by ghost train at one end of the street, wanders back and forth to solve a mystery that resides somewhere in the wasteland at the other end. There is a story of the hard, bitter little city, the sins of all one-dozen-or-so residents, and the status of a missing Japanese farmer given the improbable name “Komoko”; this is the narrative meat proper, but the skeleton of Black Rock is filled out -- or picked away and revealed -- as the camera approaches each of these desert lizard-people as mysteries unto themselves. Macreedy is the town’s first visitor in four years, and the locals hate him before he steps into town, eyeing the slowing train with silent panic and confusion. Once they have to interact with him, every conversation is an exercise in concealing data, lying, talking circles around the topic. Getting information out of these people is like pulling teeth, and even the small talk is a particularly harsh enamel scraping.
So this is the shape of the Bad Day, Macreedy pacing and studying the land, everyone engaged in a game of Who Is the Coolest?, until all players crack and all secrets are outed. Each piece of character backstory or nugget of truth about their universe is hard won -- by Macreedy in most rounds, though sometimes he has to give some ground in the short view so an opponent will lower his guard. Who he is and what he wants, being the question actively playing on every set of lips in Black Rock, are the cards Macreedy won’t show until absolutely necessary. The allegorical wireframe about quiet, stoic heroism and insulated communities who poison their own wells is overlaid with the paper-mâché skin of its residents and weather-blasted buildings. The Bad Day is about a lot of things, macro and micro: the interment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War, the Hollywood blacklist, American racism, mob violence, the myth of the American West and various untenable molds of masculinity. The story in whole chews on these thoughts, the scenes are of people chewing on each other. So after a fashion, Bad Day’s scenes are driven by a question which is not “What Happened to Komoko?” but: “Who Is the Coolest?” This death match is determined through the gradual accumulation of curious details, actorly peculiarities; the Bad Day is the process of grit settling into grooves.
Macreedy keeps one -- presumably useless -- arm stiff at his side, fist shoved deep into jacket pocket. Unseasonable black off-the-rack suit adhering to his torso, Macreedy’s sweat soaks through the fabric as he ambles about in the blazing sun; Tracy looks like a baked potato seeping butter through aluminum foil wrapping as he rolls about on a very large grill. He makes some kind of point of remaining uncomfortable in the heat, ordering hot coffee at lunch to accompany a bowl of chili, and later claims he is the kind of man who has “never thought much” about lemonade. In that particular competition, Macreedy wins against a nerve-jangled telegraph operator in just a few moves, and the poor fellow is starry-eyed in terror that he has met a man who has never even thought about lemonade.
Pete Wirth (John Ericson who later teamed up with Anne Francis again for Honey West on TV), the dumbbell hotel clerk seems to want to deny Macreedy a room because he makes a visual rhyme with the “one-armed bandit” slot machine in the corner. In an entrancing bit of business, Tracy opens a fresh pack of cigarettes with one hand. There is dialogue, perhaps it is even plot-related, but the whole picture is suddenly about the tension and marvel of Macreedy popping the wrapper and biting off confetti strips of the inner foil, spitting the paper to the floor.
The back of Lee Marvin’s shirt refuses to stay tucked into his pants throughout the day. He fixes it at least twice, and it flaps around like a lazy flag. It is not really a wonder, since Marvin keeps covertly maneuvering his big log-limbed scarecrow body into contorted positions. Here his angry idiot ranch hand, called Hector, sprawls half-propped-up across Macreedy’s rented bed. James Dean strikes a similar pose in Giant, lazily stretching across the width of the screen, a little house on the horizon appearing to plop into his lap; Hector has climbed inside that building, legs poking out the windows like a cowpoke Alice in Wonderland, as Macreedy studies him, a sedated Bill the lizard. In another interesting shot, Hector leans his elbow against a wall some four feet away from his torso, surely providing more stress on his frame than relief. Hector picks postures for maximum silhouette impact. Hector has the moves and spirit of intimidation down flat, his signature feint being to act weird and simmer with vaguely motivated violence. But he gets flummoxed fast, mainly by Macreedy’s technique of questioning the literal logic of any insinuated threat. Long enough to look like he’s going to bow the hotel bed, boots surely ruining the bedspread, and glowering intently at his burning cigarette, Hector’s materialization in Macreedy’s room is a calculated intrusion of lanky non sequitur. In this match, Hector loses, unable to be more startling than an old man in a bathrobe who refuses to act the least bit surprised.
Meanwhile, Ernest Borgnine as Coley chortles and bounces about like a fleshy rubber ball with a grinning, google-eyed goblin face painted on it. He is giggly with delight over the opportunity to bully anyone, as if he has been deprived of opportunity for years. Macreedy stares at Coley, memorizes his opponent’s malevolent hop-about, until Coley dances to the end of his chain, and lashes out in a vehicular attack on a desert road, and in a perhaps even greater violation, dumps a whole bunch of ketchup all over Macreedy's chili. Macreedy seems to endure the outbursts only to gather facts and figures, place the violence in a diagram of Coley’s attack pattern. Next time the issue is raised, Macreedy swats Coley out of the way like a slow-pitch softball. It's one-armed judo precision against an inept berserker telegraphing his moves.
John J. Macreedy makes his way to the outskirts of Black Rock, to the ruins of Komoko’s farm at Adobe Flats. He paces. He crouches. He studies the depth of a well, the composition of the dirt, the flora of the area. It takes three minutes, and he has sized up the situation. Adobe Flats gives up all the backstory that the citizens will not; the dirt and plants and rocks and holes do not care who is coolest.
“I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad,” Reno Smith tells Macreedy. The town heavy is Robert Ryan, whose career-long refinement of tough-souled goodies and baddies suppressing a psychotic streak is distilled into this pared-away Big Boss tyrant. Reno holds the town in hand by virtue of a few more IQ points, and at least understands the game they are playing. Do not flinch, do not back away, do not break eye contact first: Who is the Coolest? He is actually “mad” all the time, constantly fuming at flunkies Coley and Hector, and the entire colony of Black Rock. What he really means, though, is that man-size is determined by what makes a fellow completely lose his shit. For Reno, and by his own account, it took Pearl Harbor. So he’s at least as big a man as the entire country. And what’s bigger than that? For Macreedy, it takes the whole of the species’ fears, cowardice, inhumanity and intolerance.
Both men have already erupted in loud preaching, but only one lost an arm fighting for the country; the other incited a mob to murder. Reno gives a flame-eyed speech about desire to protect the Western country he knows, while Macreedy’s righteous rant is truly about personal bravery and individuality, his breaking point breached when the nitwit hotel clerk is too chickenshit to stand up for himself. When these symbolmen finally duke it out, it’s Reno the enraged, irrational, indignant going nuts with a gun, while Macreedy, beleaguered and persecuted, defends himself with methodical Molotov cocktails. All speechifying becomes irrelevant. Everything they mean and stand for is observable in how they fight, defined by their combat in the last round of Who is the Coolest? If Reno is the Big Boss of Black Rock, Macreedy has him beat. He’s bigger than the whole damned town.
Meanwhile, Hector’s shirttails flop out again, and billow in the hot breeze.