"Come to work on time, know your lines and don't bump into the other actors." ~Spencer Tracy on acting
From the time John J. Macreedy steps off the train in Black Rock, he feels a chill from the local residents. The town is only a speck on the map and few if any strangers ever come to the place. Macreedy himself is tight-lipped about the purpose of his trip and he finds that the hotel refuses him a room, the local garage refuses to rent him a car and the sheriff is a useless drunkard. It's apparent that the locals have something to hide but when he finally tells them that he is there to speak to a Japanese-American farmer named Kamako, he touches a nerve so sensitive that he will spend the next 24 hours fighting for his life.
Suddenly you realize murder is at your elbow! - and there's no way out!
Bad Day at Black Rock was based on the short story "Bad Time at Hondo" by Howard Breslin.
Bad Day at Black Rock was made at a time of professional and political upheaval in Hollywood. In 1951, Dore Schary had replaced Louis B. Mayer as head of MGM. Schary, politically liberal, produced "message pictures" reflecting his beliefs. This was the era of blacklisting, of the McCarthy witch-hunts, when even the hint of communist affiliation could destroy careers. Bad Day at Black Rock's contemporary western was the kind of allegory that Schary liked. In fact, he liked it so much that Schary himself replaced Charles Schnee as producer.
Originally Richard Brooks was set to direct but to keep Tracy happy, they replaced Brooks with John Sturges, who had directed Tracy in The People Against O'Hara.
According to director John Sturges' commentary track on the Criterion Laserdisc, this film was also filmed simultaneously in a standard 4:3 ratio version (as well as Cinemascope), because MGM executives were unsure of the wide screen version. It was never released.
This was Spencer Tracy's last completed MGM film, after two decades with the studio. According to one biographer of Tracy, the script did not originally call for the lead character to be a one-armed man. The producers were keen to get Tracy but didn't think he'd be interested, so they gave the character this disability with the idea that no actor can resist playing a character with a physical impairment. Tracy was still reluctant so they lied and said Alan Ladd was interested in the role. The false buzz worked and Tracy took the part.
Some of Tracy's ideas for the character that stuck included substituting the use of matches with a Zippo lighter. Tracy had difficulties lighting the matches with one hand and convinced the director to let him use a Zippo lighter, as every veteran he ever met had one. The suit that Tracy wears throughout the film was bought by him off the rack, at his insistence.
The staff at Variety magazine liked the film and 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."
The projectionist's records have revealed that over the years this has become one of the most frequently shown films in the screening room of The White House.
Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin both received career boosts from the film. Borgnine's next film, Marty, won him an Oscar -- beating Tracy, who was nominated for Bad Day at Black Rock.
John J. Macreedy: You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.
Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don't care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren't many towns like this in America. But... one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can't quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don't know what you're talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.
Sam, Cafe Proprietor: What'll you have?
John J. Macreedy: What've you got?
Sam, Cafe Proprietor: Chili and beans.
John J. Macreedy: Anything else?
Sam, Cafe Proprietor: Chili without beans.
John J. Macreedy: Your friend's a very... argumentative fellow.
Reno Smith: Sort of unpredictable, too. Got a temper like a rattlesnake.
Coley Trimble: That's me all over. I'm half horse, half alligator. You mess with me and I'll kick a lung outta' ya'
Reno Smith: She must have strained every muscle in her head to get so stupid.