Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day of Anger (1967)

Directed by: Tonino Valerii

This spaghetti western centers on Clifton City's young and feeble push-around outcast known only as Scott (Giuliano Gemma). The self-proclaimed good people of Clifton City treat Scott like a slave, smacking him around, ridiculing him and forcing him to do all the dirty work such as dispensing with buckets of poop juice from the outhouse. Apparently, the townsfolk abuse Scott because he's the bastard son of a town whore, who died when Scott was so young that he never even learned his real last name. This explains those rare Region 7 video import releases with the alternate title The Man With No Surname.

Scott can do little more than take the abuse. He has few friends, and those friends -- a brothel madame, local drunk, his shabby donkey Sartana and elderly father figure and former sheriff Murph -- are not in any position to help him out of this situation. That is, until, ruthless gunfighter Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) arrives in Clifton City and takes Scott under his wing. He teaches Scott to stand up for himself, buys him his first gun and even gives Scott a last name; Mary, the name of his passed away mother. It takes a genuine badass to pull off a name like Scott Mary. From here, their relationship delves into master and apprentice as Talby teaches Scott the 9 Rules of a Gunfighter:

1. Never beg another man.
2. Never trust anyone.
3. Never get between a gun and its target.
4. Punches are like bullets. Make the first ones count or you're finished.
5. If you wound a man, you better kill him or he'll kill you.
6. Use the right bullet at the right time.
7. Before you untie a man, take his gun first.
8. Don't give a man any more bullets than he has use for.
9. Sometimes you have to accept a challenge or you'll lose everything in the end, anyway.

While these sentiments may sound hatched from Old West fortune cookies, they're an accurate checklist for gunfighter survival. Talby adds a 10th rule in the final showdown ("Once you start killing, you can't stop").

Talby's true motive is to collect a $50,000 debt owed to him by his former partner, Wild Jack, for a robbery they pulled prior to his ten year prison stint. As it turns out, some of the so-called honest citizens of Clifton City swindled Wild Jack out of this haul. We discover these are the most powerful men in town -- the judge, the banker and the saloon owner. With Scott's help (and fueled by vengeance), Talby rapidly takes over Clifton City by deadly force and blackmailing these men with the secret of their thievery.

Scott happily serves as Talby's gun-toting lapdog until old Murph voices concerns, claiming Talby's corrupting Clifton City and making a good town go bad. Evidently, Clifton City somehow defines "good" as harassing an orphan, stealing large sums of money and blasting rock salt into the local drunk's ass for pitching stones into empty glass bottles. Seems the town's better off with Talby to me, but who am I to question Murph? Murph eventually stands against Talby alone, leaving Scott to choose between his old life and his new one.

The real strength of the film lies in Van Cleef and Gemma's casting and performances. They perfectly compliment one another in the master-protege template. Van Cleef looks haggard, surely and savvy whereas Gemma is fresh-faced, good-natured and naive. Their careers nicely contrast as well; at this stage, Gemma is a new star to spaghetti westerns coming off the highly successful Ringo films compared to Van Cleef as a well-established veteran star of the genre thanks to his legendary work on Sergio Leone's Dollars films. Van Cleef brings instant credibility and a likable villainy that few, if any, others could as believably deliver and impress upon Gemma's naturalistic innocence and eagerness.

Day of Anger was directed by another spaghetti western staple, Tonino Valerii, who previously directed A Taste For Killing and thereafter helmed the more well known comedy western My Name s Nobody. As a former Leone assistant, Valerii displays numerous Leoneseque qualities, so much so that you could envision Day of Anger as a pre-Dollars trilogy Leone picture. Immediately, you'll notice Leone signatures in the set design that primarily re-purpose Dollars trilogy locations. The stone circle from the final showdown in For A Few Dollars More makes a cameo. In addition to Van Cleef, Valerii utilizes Leone regulars, Al Murdock (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West), in the role of Talby's former partner, Wild Jack and Benito Stefanelli (Dollars trilogy) in the role of Owen, the killer hired to oust Talby.

What sets Day of Anger apart is the progression of the characters, a rarity for the Spaghetti Western. Here, we witness Scott Mary evolve from a picked-on garbage boy simpleton to a feared gunslinger on confidence overload. Talby's stature grows immensely, transforming from a snarling gunman into a calculative political overlord. The film is also crafted with subtle character beats that are more informative than the surface level may indicate. For instance, when Talby purchases Scott's first gun, he deliberately steers him away from shorter barrels better suited for fast draws toward a much larger long barrel firearm that's less efficient. The implication set is that Talby has slyly built an advantage for himself against Scott if a showdown occurred.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that spaghetti westerns were a discussion topic on a recent GGTMC episode, specifically as to which actor symbolizes the genre. If I recall correctly, the vote favored Clint Eastwood. I agree with this, but I must say that Lee Van Cleef nearly steals the crown for me. When I think of spaghetti westerns, the Man With No Name pops to mind, but when I think Eastwood? I don't always think of the Dollars films, sometimes it's Dirty Harry or maybe Clint the Director, etc. When I think about Lee Van Cleef? I always think of a spaghetti western. It's kind of similar to a sports franchise where maybe Eastwood is immortalized as the MVP for a championship reign then moved on to other teams, but Van Cleef is the beloved fan favorite by playing his entire career for the same team.

Despite Lee Van Cleef's presence, Day of Anger has remained a hidden gem amongst spaghetti westerns. It has risen in notoriety in recent years due to Quentin Tarantino (who else?) playing the film at one of his QT film fests in Austin and listing it as his 7th favorite Spaghetti Western of all time. If you're a fan of the genre, Day of Anger won't measure up to the big four Leone films, but I think you'll find Valerii's picture deservedly ranks with the best non-Leone spaghettis ever made.

Make or Break scene - In an early scene, Talby invites Scott to have a drink at the saloon, but Scott's soon threatened by a rowdy bar patron who Talby guns down in Scott's defense. This scene makes the film as it gives you a reason to like Talby and understand why Scott would follow him. It builds goodwill for Talby that allows one to dismiss his misdeeds and really feel Scott's struggle in choosing a side between Talby and Murph at the film's climax. Plus, by this point, you despise the citizens of Clifton City and you're ready for a little vengeance to be dealt.

MVT - Giuliano Gemma. The entire film hinges on Gemma's performance and the man comes through. If you don't believe his character's change then the film just does not work. Further to this, Gemma does not simply flip the switch from weak to strong, good to bad, but rather he manages to somehow retain this unique boyish wholesomeness after becoming a vengeful killer, always reminding you where this darker persona grew from originally, something like a blood thirsty kid in a candy store. The performance makes one re-consider an earlier scene where Scott childishly practices his quick draw with a wooden gun held by a rope holster as not a goofball example of his poverty, but rather a darkly insight into a young man's mind hellbent on the day when he'll have his revenge.

Score: 8.25/10


  1. Very good write up...I reviewed this myself not long ago, an excellent film. One of the better Euro-Westerns. The duel on horseback with front loading rifles is a particular highlight.

  2. Great write-up! Will definitely have to watch this!

  3. Thanks, guys. I appreciate the feedback!

    Shaun -- Love that duel. Great moment. Excited to check out your review as well.