A formalist affair, from the credits on: John Sturges measures the screen for width (the Cinemascope rectangle accommodating the streamlined express in the desert) and depth (the great locomotive rushing toward the camera), and tells the tale. The titular town is a parched "hangover from the Old West," the stranger (Spencer Tracy) is a one-armed war veteran who drops by and starts asking questions. The dirty secret, involving Nisei discrimination and murder by wartime "patriotic drunks," is exhumed piecemeal over the course of a day; head bigot Robert Ryan governs the townspeople, divided into laconic sadists (Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine) and bullied, silent collaborators (Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson). Black Rock is both frontier town and ghost town, complete with disgraced sheriff and contemplative mortician, the belle (Anne Francis) is a tough opportunist and the saloon has a pinball machine with war bonds posters above it. Millard Kaufman’s dialogue at times sticks to the roof of the mouth ("I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy," Brennan drawls), but Sturges’ visual construction is minute. Terse lateral sprawls are slashed with ominous verticals: Rusty, red gas pumps against blue skies and jagged rocks around the remains of a burned farm and grave, Tracy’s wry blockiness versus the elongated figures of Ryan and Marvin in dwarfing compositions. A country’s inquiry into its less savory side, conducted under a blasting sun -- the avenging angel builds up to a cathartic karate chop (out of Kurosawa, toward Peckinpah) and in the darkness improvises a Molotov cocktail out of jeep petrol, whiskey bottle and cravat. "The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over." A flavor of Borges hangs over its prose, also the Mallarmé of Toast Funèbre, another concentrated work about dead comrades and the "memory of horizons." Cinematography by William C. Mellor. With Russell Collins, and Walter Sande.
--- Fernando F. Croce