Thursday, January 10, 2019

DAY OF ANGER (I giorni dell'ira, 1967)

 Few films identify themselves so blatantly as star vehicles in their opening titles , 
but the first-ever teaming of red-hot western stars Gemma and Van Cleef was one of this one's main attractions.
At first glance, Tonino Valerii's film appears to be based on an English-language novel, but on further review source author Ron Barker was really German scribe Rolf O. Becker, and in any event the filmmakers claim that the screenplay was more inspired by than adapted from Becker/Barker's Death Rode on Tuesdays. Nevertheless, Day of Anger is one of those spaghetti westerns that feels more like an American western in its focus on the main character's moral crisis. To be Germanic about it after all, it's a kind of western bildungsroman in which a naive youth learns what it means to be a gunman under the tutelage of rival mentors.

Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is the town pariah in the community of Clifton, for no better reason than his illegitimate birth. He's given the most disreputable tasks, particularly trash collection, and is despised by respectable townsfolk. His life changes when Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) rides through town on his way to Bowie. He seems to sympathize with Scott's outcast status and seems offended when Scott reveals that he has no last name. Since his mother's name was Mary, Frank dubs him Scott Mary and insists on treating him to drinks in the local saloon, where he kills one of Scott's tormentors. A court calls it self-defense, but everyone feels that the victim meant no real harm, so Frank is urged on his way, and Scott follows him, riding his faithful mule Sartana (!!)

On their journey together Talby takes it upon himself to teach Scott a number of valuable life lessons, most of which boil down to cynical pragmatism. It sometimes means treating Scott rough, but Frank seems sincere about wanting to toughen up his new protege. His efforts pay off as Scott saves him from a criminal gang, friends of the man he came to Bowie to meet. He and Wild Jack (Al Mulock) had been involved in a bank robbery in Clifton, for which Frank had served time in prison. Jack tells him that the town fathers of Clifton had had a hand in the robbery and had screwed him out of his (and Frank's) share -- about $50,000. Frank decides to assume Jack's claim on the city and after eliminating Jack and his gang with Scott's help he returns to Clifton for a reckoning.

 Cinematographer Enzo Serafin is fond of showing characters in mirrors  (left)
before they enter the frame proper

At this point it sounds like the Point Blank scenario, but Talby has more ambitious plans. After burning down the leading saloon and destroying those who plotted to destroy him, Frank opens his own opulent gambling joint and settles down. The realization that Talby is driven ultimately by greed rather than revenge hastens Scott's estrangement from him. The disillusionment continues as Scott's old friend and fellow stable bum Murph (Walter Rilla), who taught Scott a fast draw with a wooden gun, reveals himself as a former gunfighter who once drove Talby from another town. Recognizing Talby as an incorrigible bad man, Murph braces up and becomes the town marshal while advising Scott on tactical firearm modification. After Talby kills Murph, Scott finds a special gun the old man had tailored just for him, just to outdraw Talby....

Lee Van Cleef is The Master ... of ceremonies  

 Day of Anger stands out for some things the writers refuse to do. All the way through I waited for a shoe to drop and for Talby or someone else to identify himself as Scott Mary's father, but it never happens and it didn't need to. It observes Talby's mentorship of Scott without comment, except to perhaps endorse Murph's view that Frank simply wants a younger man as extra muscle. Another interesting detail is that, while Scott gradually turns against Talby, Frank never really does anything to betray his protege, apart perhaps from bringing in extra gunmen rather than rely on Scott exclusively. He may be vicious in general, but the people of Clifton and environs demonstrate constantly that he lives in a vicious world, as he tries to convey to Scott. There's an admirable ambivalence about Talby that allows you to conclude that, yes, he would resent a guilty town's mistreatment of an innocent boy and, yes, he could take advantage of that boy's resentment and ambition for his own ends. It helps greatly that Lee Van Cleef gives the part such gravitas. This film, among others, confirms what Sergio Leone saw in him that Hollywood had missed for so long. It's a tremendous showcase for Van Cleef's baleful charisma and perhaps his best performance in an Italian western outside of Leone's films. It's a shame you can't have a version of the film that allows Van Cleef to speak English while Gemma speaks Italian, for while screencaps convey nicely the Italian star's portrayal through facial expressions and body language of an ambitious naif increasingly horrified at the prospect of his own hardening, the English dub saddles him with a dumb yokel voice that makes it hard to take Scott seriously as consistently as we should.

As an obvious "A" spaghetti western Day of Anger has predictably good cinematography (by Enzo Serafin) and even better set design that makes Clifton one of the most fully realized fictional towns in the genre. The highlight, of course, is Frank Talby's saloon with its giant guns flanking the entrance, its unusual placement of the stage on an upper tier, and almost psychedelic design motifs -- the common influence seems to be Art Nouveau -- inside. Riz Ortolani does the music for this one and gives it a brassy swagger on top of the characteristic guitar sound. If anything, his score contributes to the film's slightly excessive length and occasionally dragging pace. There are numerous scenes of Van Cleef and Gemma riding through not exactly spectacular landscapes simply so Ortolani's music can play. It's not bad music at all, but moments like those make Day of Anger feel more like a modern soundtrack-padded American film than a contemporary western. For the most part, however, it looks and sounds like what it is: one of the best of the spaghetti westerns.

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