Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy, one-armed war veteran
Black Rock, California, Fall 1945
Film: Bad Day at Black Rock
Release Date: January 7, 1955
Director: John Sturges
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Bad Day at Black Rock may have been one of the most requested movies I’ve been asked to write about, so when I saw that the Criterion Channel had added it to their streaming collection in December, I wasted no time in finally watching this swift and spectacular thriller that had been recommended by so many of you.
Based on Howard Breslin’s short story “Bad Time at Honda”, the account begins in the sprawling desert of eastern California, specifically the isolated berg of Black Rock, where no train has stopped in four years—the duration of American participation in World War II—until this particular day in late 1945, when the one-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) requests a stop.
Conductor: Man, they look woebegone and far away.
Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here 24 hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.
Macreedy isn’t warmly accepted in this remote hamlet of less than a dozen structures, facing mysterious hostility from the new townspeople as he inquires about a nearby landmark called Adobe Flat. In contrast to the seething resentment and outright anger the townspeople exhibit toward this newcomer, the desert itself looks marvelous, beautifully photographed in CinemaScope by cinematographer William C. Mellor.
“You look like you need a hand,” quips the most threatening townsman, Hector David (Lee Marvin), as the one-armed Macreedy hefts his suitcase up the hotel steps after talking the clerk, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), into renting him a room and bath.
“There’s one thing about Black Rock, everybody is polite,” Macreedy jokes with the bored sheriff, Tim Horn (Dean Jagger.) “That makes for very gracious living.”
More Black Rock inhabitants, such as the hot-tempered Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), share their suspicions with de facto town leader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), who masks his own hostility to diplomatically greet Macreedy and attempt to discern why he’s in town. Macreedy takes the bait, sharing that he’s in search of a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko. Smith reveals that Komoko was interned during the war; indeed, the filming location of Lone Pine, California, isn’t far from where the infamous Manzanar camp had been situated.
Smith: I believe a man is as big as what he’s seeking… and I believee you’re a big man, Mr. Macreedy.
Macreedy: Flattery will get you nowhere.
While everyone else in town dangerously bands together to protect their deadly secret, only Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) and Sheriff Horn suspect that Macreedy—or at least what he’s after—could be the antidote to the poison that’s been running through Black Rock for the last four years, and they make the unpopular decision to ally themselves with Macreedy.
After patient withstanding the townspeople’s abuse, the mild-mannered Macreedy finally fights back as the aggressive Coley continues needling him over a bowl of chili, offering in no uncertain terms the opportunity to fight to the death. Macreedy calmly rises, pays for his chili, and—with one well-placed judo chop to his opponent’s neck—alerts the town that they’re going to have to try a little harder if they want to scare John J. Macreedy.
What’d He Wear?
Though he freshens his shirt and tie, John J. Macreedy wears the same suit, made of a lightweight charcoal gray silk that shines under the desert sun like a suit of armor. The suit was reportedly bought off-the-rack for the production from a secondhand store (according to IMDB), though it fits Spencer Tracy almost as though it had been tailored for him.
The single-breasted suit jacket has a three-button front, which he wears correctly with only the middle button fastened where his trousers rise to the waist. The ventless jacket has straight shoulders, roped sleeveheads, and three buttons at the end of each cuff. The patch pockets are a sporty touch for an otherwise businesslike suit, and Macreedy wears his white cotton handkerchief folded in the breast pocket like a pocket square.
The suit’s matching trousers have a long rise which, as noted, meets the jacket’s buttoning point at Tracy’s natural waist. The double reverse-facing pleats flatter the 55-year-old actor’s expanding midsection while also responding to the pleat-heavy trends of the postwar era when tailors were celebrating the end of wartime cloth restrictions by cutting fuller-fitting suits detailed to capitalize on having more fabric available.
Macreedy holds his trousers up with a belt that goes almost unseen on screen due to the jacket remaining buttoned, though a few glimpses reveal a strip of black leather rather than the brown that would better coordinate with his shoes. (Since the jacket does keep the belt mostly covered, the lack of coordination would be less an issue.)
The trousers have gently slanted “quarter top” pockets along the sides and jetted back pockets. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) with a short break over his brown leather derby shoes.
Constructed from a russet brown leather evoking the service shoes authorized for his fellow U.S. Army officers during World War II, Macreedy’s cap-toe derbies have five-eyelet open lacing. He generally wears light gray cotton lisle socks, but a continuity error in the hotel lobby swaps out his hosiery for a pair of darker blue-slate ribbed socks.
Yet another footwear-related continuity error can be seen as Macreedy attempts to escape with Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) in her jeep, and he now appears to be wearing a set of black calf cap-toe oxfords with dark socks (seen here), though the following scene finds him back in the appropriate burgundy-hued derbies and lighter gray socks.
When Macreedy arrives in town, he wears an icy white shirt with a long-pointed spread collar and button cuffs, coordinated with his navy blue silk tie. (This is evidently his traveling combination, as he changes back into it when leaving town the following day.)
After freshening up in his hotel room and bath, Macreedy changes into a plain white shirt similarly detailed with a long-pointed spread collar, plain “French placket” front, and button cuffs. He also wears a dark brown tie, eventually peeling this off to construct a makeshift molotov cocktail.
Macreedy tops off his look with a beautifully constructed fedora in chocolate brown felt with a perfectly pinched crown, self-edged brim, and a wide band in a coordinated shade of dark brown grosgrain.
What to Imbibe
A prominent whiskey “brand” encountered throughout Bad Day at Black Rock is Golden Delight, a fictional bourbon label printed for other MGM films of the label like the hardboiled noir The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the Tennessee Williams adaptation Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), where Paul Newman’s repressed Brick desperately drowned this elixir of choice until he could feel “that mechanical click.”
Macreedy finds a more utilitarian use for Golden Delight, using an empty bottle at an ambush site as the vessel for a molotov cocktail. Earlier that day, however, Golden Delight served its intended purpose as the preferred bourbon swilled by town sheriff Tim Horn.
As Macreedy establishes his scrappy alliance with Doc Velie and the now-defrocked sheriff Tim Horn, he wordlessly opens his briefcase and pulls out a bottle of whiskey for Doc to crack open… an obvious choice, as Doc is played by Walter Brennan, one of classic Hollywood’s most memorable on-screen drunks. The label on Macreedy’s bottle reads Pebble Ames, no doubt another fictional creation from MGM’s props department.
Though Tracy himself battled alcoholism throughout his life, he was known to abstain from drinking during a film shoot and would exclusively drink cold 7 Up while hosting cocktail hours for the cast and crew in his hotel room.
How to Get the Look
Spencer Tracy’s heroic John J. Macreedy dresses in a manner of dignified simplicity. The suit has a flattering fit despite its secondhand status, and his plain charcoal suit, white shirt, dark tie, and fedora differs little from the standard kit any gent would wear in mid-century America, though the added shine of Macreedy’s suiting suggests that he’s a knight sent to rescue the toxic town of Black Rock from itself.
- Charcoal silk suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated long-rise trousers with “quarter top” side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with long-pointed spread collar, plain “French placket” front, and button cuffs
- Dark brown tie
- Black leather belt with single-prong buckle
- Russet brown leather cap-toe 5-eyelet derby shoes
- Light gray cotton lisle socks
- Brown felt fedora with brown grosgrain silk ribbon and self-edged brim
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.