One morning in 1945, for the first time since before the war, the Southern Pacific train stops at the southwestern desert town of Black Rock. A one-armed man named John J. MacReedy (superbly portrayed by Spencer Tracy) steps off the train. This event will have dramatic effects on the lives of everyone in the town.
Those events make up the plot of a great movie that is part mystery and part western. If you can imagine a cross between High Noon (1952), and Crossfire (1947) you might be picturing this movie. Bad Day at Black Rock is an exciting film with an excellent cast whose performances create tension, conflict, romance and mystery that all contribute to the action of a film that effectively portrays the contrast between real courage and the posturing of bullies. It is also a powerful examination of the racism and crass self interest that all too often has masqueraded behind the name of "Americanism."
MacReedys presence in Black Rock inspires uneasiness in the few residents of the town's tumbledown buildings and surrounding desert ranches. That unease turns to obvious fear when he asks about Komoko -- a Japanese rancher who had vanished without a trace soon after the war started. It is clear that everyone in the town shares a terrible secret concerning Komoko's disappearance.
Everyone is afraid to tell MacReedy anything because they have been terrorized into silence by rancher Reno Smith (played by Robert Ryan in one of his best portrayals of a dangerous neurotic character) and his two henchmen (superbly portrayed by Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin). Even the local lawman (Dean Jagger, in a fine performance) is terrified of Smith and his men. Smith likens MacReedy to a disease carrier, "Since he's arrived this town's had a fever, an infection and it's spreading." But the town's elderly doctor (played by Walter Brennan) disagrees, suggesting that, "Maybe this fellah MacReedy's got the prescription" that the sick town of Black Rock needs.
Tracy plays MacReedy with such gentleness, politeness, and even timidity that it is initially surprising that the imposing Smith should so obviously fear MacReedy and should refer to him as a "big" man. Smith says, "I believe a man is as big as what makes him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to make you mad." That Ryan is right about the mild-mannered stranger is made clear in one of the films most emotionally satisfying scenes, where Ernest Borgnine tries to bully MacReedy only to be karate-chopped into submission. From that point on we know that MacReedy is at least a match for the forces arrayed against him. The plot moves forward to an exciting conclusion.