Tonino Valerii sprang from the great genre melting pot that was the Italian film industry in the 1960s. Always keen to be considered both a writer and a director, he began his career under an American-sounding nom de plume as writer and assistant director on a vampire movie starring Christopher Lee. After that, he served as assistant director on Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and from then it was only a matter of time before someone gave him the chance to direct for himself. Despite enjoying a directorial career that spanned four decades, Valerii is still most fondly remembered for the spaghetti westerns that dominated his early years in the director’s chair. Previously released in the UK under the name Gunlaw, Valerii’s second film Day of Anger is as colourful as it is thematically rich.
The film opens with its protagonist Scott (Giuliano Gemma) emptying the slop buckets of a respectable frontier town. Wealthy and civilised enough that the town sheriff feels no need to carry a gun, Cliffton treats Scott with a level of scorn that seems completely unjust given the amount he does for the community. In fact… you could almost say that the residents of Cliffton go out of their way to brutalise the man who empties their chamber pots in a bid to distance themselves from what he represents.
The various interviews contained on this disc make a big deal out of the film’s ‘Oedipal’ themes in so far as Scott ultimately winds up killing the man who acted as his father but a more accurate way to describe the film would be to say that it is all about the dangers of abrogating one’s parental responsibilities.
There is a very real sense in which Scott is the child of all the men in Cliffton. For starters, he was born in the town brothel and raised by its employees but while he grew up knowing the identity of his mother, he never did learn the name of his father. The weird uncertainty surrounding Scott’s parentage is made quite obvious in an early scene where the town judge brutalises Scott for daring to talk to his daughter and while you might expect a snobbish judge to be displeased at the idea of his daughter taking up with the guy who empties the poo buckets, the venom in the judge’s words hint at a more visceral response to the idea of a man having sex with his own sister. The judge’s hatred of Scott is echoed by almost everyone in town except for Murph (Walter Rilla), the old boy who runs the stables. Murph only came to Cliffton late in life so could not possibly be Scott’s father and yet he is the only person who seems interested in actually taking responsibility for the young man… until Lee Van Cleef rides into town.
Van Cleef’s career really took off after a dialogue-free role in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. As the film historian David Thomson puts it, everyone remembered those tiny glaring eyes and the face that might have been cut out of wood with a hatchet. Van Cleef puts those eyes to excellent use in the role of an aging and manipulative gun-fighter who happens to take an interest in a boy who had, up until that point, only ever experienced scorn: Within ten minutes of his arrival in town, Van Cleef’s Talby shoots a man dead for being rude to Scott. Five minutes after that and Scott is begging the older gunfighter to take him with him when he leaves town.
Talby is undoubtedly one of the great western bad buys: Intensely manipulative and strategically brilliant, he spends most of the film goading people into drawing first so that he can shoot them dead in the name of self-defence. Upon learning that much of Cliffton’s wealth came from an ugly scheme hatched by the town’s grandees, Talby starts playing the paranoid old men off of each other, tricking them into signing over more and more of their town. Whenever the old men get worried, they send someone to kill Talby and every time they send someone to kill Talby, Scott saves his life and grows more vicious in the process.
For much of the film, Van Cleef plays Talby as something of an antihero; a man whose violent and manipulative actions are somehow humanised not only by the villainy of his victims but also by the praise he lavishes on Scott. Talby winds up being more of a father to Scott than any of the vicious hypocrites who might actually be his father but the more of an adult Scott becomes, the more he starts to question Talby’s apparent viciousness. Why would a man so cold go out of his way to raise a son when he could just as easily hire a bunch of goons to do his bidding? One potential answer surfaces in a fantastic scene in which Murph explains how older gun-slingers sometimes take an apprentice in an attempt to compensate for their slowing reflexes. However, as Murph points out, there comes a time when the reputation of the henchman begins to surpass that of the master and that is when the father inevitably begins to question the loyalty of the son.
The interesting thing about this psychodrama is that while Scott and Talby obviously wind up shooting at each other at the end of the film, hostilities only begin when Scott refuses to drink with Talby after the conversation with Murph. The tensions that emerge between Talby and Scott are neither the result of Scott’s reputation overshadowing Talby’s nor Talby doing anything to harm Scott, they are the result of Talby taking his eye off the ball and allowing Murph to usurp his paternal role and begin filling Scott’s head with all sort of paranoid theories. This is not a film about the challenge posed to the father by the son; it is about men who fail to look after their sons only to wind up being destroyed by the monster created when someone steps in and assumes the parental responsibilities that they chose to neglect. Had Talby not allowed himself to be distracted by plotting and refrained from taking on a group of thugs who wind up provoking feelings of sibling rivalry in the increasingly savage Scott then maybe Scott would never have turned down that drink… Maybe they could have ruled Cliffton together.
Despite its thematic richness, Day of Anger moves at a brisk old pace thanks to Valerii’s decision to share writing duties with Ernesto Gastaldi, a man who collaborated with such greats as Mario Baca, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Leone on his way to becoming one of the most important figures in the history of Italian genre film. Never more than a few minutes away from either a spectacular gunfight or Lee Van Cleef doing something incredibly cold-blooded, Day of Anger strikes an almost perfect balance between substance and spectacle.