Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Director (John Sturges), Best Writing, Screenplay (Millard Kaufman)
SUMMARY: Several months after the end of WWII, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives in the town of Black Rock, Arizona. Macreedy is instantly noticed: nobody ever gets off the train at Black Rock (it’s the first time the train has even stopped there in four years), and he has a crippled left arm. For whatever reason, the locals are incredibly hostile to Macreedy, particularly after he starts asking for a man named Komoko. When Macreedy tries to check into the hotel, the clerk tells him that all the rooms are full – even though there’s clearly nobody in the hotel. Macreedy checks in anyway, but is quickly approached by Hector David (Lee Marvin), who un-subtly threatens him. It soon becomes clear that most of the men in town either work for or are under the thumb of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a local rancher; the men appraise Smith of Macreedy’s every move. However, Macreedy persists in trying to find Komoko, and even rents a Jeep to drive out to the man’s property. Komoko is not there; Smith had told Macreedy that the Japanese immigrant had been interned during the war, and had never returned. The buildings on the property have burned down, but Macreedy does find a working well on the property, along with a patch of wildflowers. On his way back to town, Macreedy is run off the road by another of Smith’s men, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine). On his return, Macreedy is confronted by Smith himself, who first asks what happened to his arm. Macreedy reveals that he lost it fighting in Italy, but then turns the tables on Smith. He states that the wildflowers he found on the Komoko property indicate that a body is buried there, and insinuates that Smith was involved. Smith refutes this, but does confirm that he hates the Japanese for what they did at Pearl Harbor (Smith had tried to enlist after the attack, but was refused). Macreedy then tries to talk to the town’s doctor/vet/undertaker, who is not as afraid of Smith as everybody else. Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) does not tell him what happened, but confirms that there was an awful event, and that Smith has terrorized everyone into silence. He also strongly encourages Macreedy to get out of town as soon as he can. Macreedy tries to call in the state police, but Pete, the hotel clerk, refuses to put the call through. Macreedy also tries to send a telegram to the state police. Doc offers him the hearse to get out of town, but Hector is there watching Macreedy, and rips out the wiring of the car.
That evening, Macreedy goes to the diner for supper, only to incur more harassment from Coley Trimble. When the man tries to pick a fight with him, Macreedy finally reacts, and uses a few swift martial arts moves to drop the man. Smith is watching, and Macreedy states that he knows Smith killed Komoko, with the help of various other men. All of these men follow him back to the hotel, where the telegram agent rushes in and gives Smith a piece of paper. Macreedy snatches it away and realizes that it is his telegram – which was never sent to the state police. However, the agent had handed the telegram to Smith, which is illegal; both Macreedy and Doc Velie demand an arrest. The sheriff is in the room, but hesitates to cross Smith. In response, Smith takes the sheriff’s star and gives it to Hector, who tears up the telegram. The others leave the hotel, and only Macreedy, Doc and Pete remain. Macreedy tells them that he is looking for Komoko because the man’s son had saved his life in Italy, and died in the process. He was given a medal, and Macreedy has come to give it to Komoko. Pete has quickly become disillusioned with Smith, and he finally reveals what happened to Komoko. The man had rented some farmland from Smith, who was convinced that there was no water on the property. However, Komoko managed to find water, and thus became a threat to Smith’s livelihood. After Pearl Harbor, Smith and the other men in town got drunk, and decided to harass Komoko. They set his house on fire, and when the Komoko ran out, on fire himself, Smith shot him. After finishing the story, Doc, Pete and Macreedy come up with a plan to get Macreedy safely out of town. Hector is keeping watch outside the hotel, but Pete lures him inside, where Doc knocks him out. Pete’s sister is waiting with her Jeep to take Macreedy to safety, but instead, drives him into a trap set by Smith. Smith starts shooting at Macreedy, who takes cover behind the Jeep; Liz tries to go to Smith, but he shoots her, as she is a witness. While behind the Jeep, Macreedy finds a bottle, sills it with gas from the car, and creates a Molotov cocktail using his tie. After lighting it, he throws it at Smith; though the man’s clothes catch fire, he manages to put it out with Macreedy’s help. Macreedy then loads Smith and Liz into the Jeep, and takes them back into Black Rock, where he calls the police. The next day, the train arrives to pick up Macreedy. Doc asks if the town might keep the medal awarded to Komoko’s son, as a tool to help the town heal. Just before he leaves, Macreedy gives him the medal.
MY TAKE: The interesting thing about this movie is that Macreedy isn’t a private investigator or detective or anything: he’s just a normal person who wants to pay his respects to Komoko. He acts a bit like a detective, since he keeps insisting on finding Komoko, but he really doesn’t do any investigating – he just persists until he finds out what happens. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that something was wrong, since the first time Macreedy asks about Komoko everybody freaks out. Macreedy was lucky to get out of town alive, since everybody’s out to get him. I was most amazed that Macreedy managed to not react to any of the provocations from the various men, at least not until Trimble comes after him in the diner. Then, Macreedy drops the larger man with a few swift karate chops, which was awesome. I also thought it was interesting how Macreedy walks around: clearly, even though Macreedy has “lost” his arm, Spencer Tracy just has his hand in his pocket. However, when he’s walking around looking at things or thinking, he puts that one hand behind his back. I think Spencer Tracy walked around like that (with his hands behind his back) frequently, and apparently it’s a habit that continues even when one hand is in your pocket. It’s kind of amusing to watch, since there’s no other hand there to clasp. In the end, the mystery wasn’t that fascinating, since it was clear early on that Smith had killed Komoko, and the method didn’t turn out to be that sensational. The only real surprise was that Macreedy was basically a nobody.