Noir meets Western! I kinda dug it.
Spencer Tracy stars as John MacReedy, a recent World War II vet who has come by train to the tiny desert town of Black Rock on an errand. His arrival baffles everyone in town – no one’s visited in four years. So the men all eye MacReedy curiously, and warily, as he walks down the tiny Main Street – and MacReedy is just as bemused, and then uneasy, to be the object of such close study. Everyone’s a bit on edge by the time MacReedy gets to the local inn and asks how he might get to a nearby ranch that’s supposed to belong to someone named Komoko. But that name turns the Black Rockers even more unwelcoming – and MacReedy starts to suspect he should get the hell out of there.
But the next train isn’t due for another 24 hours. So MacReedy can either lay low, or get to the bottom of things.
Some of the other townspeople are a bit one-note; Ernest Borgnine is a hot-tempered bully, while Lee Marvin is a laconic one. Robert Ryan is the Big Man In Town who seems to have everyone under a Svengali-like spell. Tracy is also pretty restrained here; there are several spots in the film where MacReedy suspects he is in some seriously big trouble, but Tracy’s MacReedy never seems to get flustered. Not because he’s super-cool, though – it’s more like, MacReedy knows that panicking wouldn’t do any good. He can hold his own in a fight, though, as he demonstrates when one of the Black Rockers tries to tussle with him and he defends himself with some judo moves. (Seriously!)
Speaking of which – I was also pleasantly surprised that this film touched on the Japanese Internments of World War II, however briefly; that is the Black Rocker’s explanation for the absence of Mr. Komoko. Something about that story doesn’t sit right with MacReedy, though, and his investigations upset the town even further. You do eventually find out who Komoko is, and what has the town on edge when he is invoked. It’s better I not say anything more; the mystery unfolds in a sort of slow burn as MacReedy wanders around town, evading the bullies and picking up whatever information he can while quietly and desperately trying to get either help or transport away from Black Rock. It’s possible the story is wrapped up a touch too neatly – but not enough to bother me, I admit.