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REVIEW — Day of Anger (1967)

April 1, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Tonino Valerii’s awesome spaghetti western Day of Anger, also known as Gunlaw and I Giorni Dell’Ira.

The film is set in a prosperous frontier town where the ‘fatherless’ child of one of the local sex workers makes a living emptying chamber pots whilst being systematically beaten and demeaned by the men of the town. However, this situation comes to a sudden end when Lee Van Cleef’s ageing desperado rides into town and decides to take the young man under his wing. As the old gunfighter hatches a plot to take over the town, the young man becomes quite an accomplished gunfighter… so accomplished that he eventually becomes the only man who could possibly take down the old gunfighter. However, the young man’s loyalty towards the old man is compromised when another old man steps in and starts filling his head with paranoid thoughts:

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.

As I explain in my review, the film is often thought of as an ‘Oedipal’ text about a son who is forced to kill his father before he can become an adult. However, a less Freudian reading suggests that Day of Anger might actually be more interested in the practicalities of parenting than in the father’s role as a symbol. Indeed, the film’s final act hinges upon the fact that Van Cleef’s character is so distracted by his awesome plotting and scheming that another man was able to sneak in and raise the son to hate the father.

Upon reflection, it now occurs to me that there is something distinctly Christlike about the figure of Scott Mary in so far as he is the fatherless ‘son of man’ who is forced to suffer for the sins of the community he inhabits. Scott Mary does eventually turn against his morally questionable father but only after the father was distracted and Scott Mary was attacked echoing the themes of abandonment found in Psalm 22’s cries of My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? In fact, one could almost imagine Day of Anger as an alternative vision of the crucifixion in which Jesus pulls himself off the cross, kills God and positions himself on the throne of Heaven but that might be pushing this interpretation a little bit too far in the direction of awesome.

Another thing that occurred to me while watching Day of Anger is how influential Eastwood’s Unforgiven has been on the Western genre. Indeed, most of the spaghetti westerns were violent to the point of nihilism but their visuals were invariably sunny and colourful. By contrast virtually all of the most notable American Westerns of recent years have taken their cues from Unforgiven and portrayed the old west as a cold, muddy place that was full of ugly farting men and drug-addled sex-workers. Even Tarantino’s Django Unchained paid lip service to that aesthetic in its early scenes before going on to recreate the carnivalesque melange of blood and sunshine that you find in many of the old Italian Westerns. As someone who really quite likes Westerns, I find the genre’s lack of visual innovation really quite frustrating as the Western seems to have emerged as yet another victim of grimdark’s stanglehold on the American psyche. Day of Anger is actually a really interesting counterpoint to the rise of the grimdark aesthetic as while the film is so bright and colourful that you could film an upbeat Western-themes musical using the same sets and costumes, the themes of the film are actually much darker and messed up than anything that has emerged from the later years of the post-revisionist Western.

 

4 Comments
  1. Brendan permalink
    April 1, 2015 3:39 pm

    Would be v. interested in reading something from you on the history/rise of grimdark.

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  2. April 1, 2015 4:27 pm

    Thanks :-) I suspect that I probably have such an article in me somewhere and I’ll put some thought into developing my ideas.

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  3. April 2, 2015 12:16 am

    It’s not just Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but his 70s-80s Westerns as well. High Plains Drifter, Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider (all of which are good to excellent) were test runs for the apotheosis of his “revisionism” in Unforgiven. I’m not much of a fan of Eastwood beyond the borders of the Western, but when he’s fully immersed in the genre, he’s on fire. Those 3 precursors definitely set the tone, one that became, as you so rightfully point out, paradigmatic. The Alex Cox and Altman Westerns did not achieve the same prominence, alas and alack.

    I suspect the grimdark mode has become dominant for a bunch of reasons, with a major factor being the ultimate victory of irony over any other mode of discourse in every aspect of our lives. Can’t show too much emotion — it leaves us weak and vulnerable — so we’ll shroud ourselves with cynicism and detached emotion in order to be guarded. DFW talks about this in his essay on the rise of television. We’re under observation all the time; instead of a panopticon with an unknown guard at the centre, it’s the ceaseless cyclopean eye of television.

    This definitely slots in with other comments you’ve made, Jonathan, about how mainstream cinema instructs us — nay, demands of us to feel x and y at the appropriate times.

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  4. April 3, 2015 9:24 am

    Hi Matthew :-)

    I think you’re right when you say that Unforgiven took its cues from certain aspects of the revisionist western… but only certain bits. Revisionist westerns looked considerably more varied than most recent depictions of the old west… a lot of them, for example, were quite trippy and their tones differed quite markedly as while most contemporary westerns are warts-and-all libertarian, many revisionist westerns addressed wider political themes. Contemporary westerns are definitely informed by the revisionist western movement but only certain aspects of it have survived and those aspects that have survived are effectively grimdark.

    I read a grimdark fantasy novel a while back and what I felt was that, far from being more realistic, it was effectively selling me an escapist power fantasy in which the most cold-blooded and brutal always rise to the top. The completely moral vacuum at the heart of the novel meant that rather than serving as a critique of these tendencies in human nature, the novel came across as basically a fairytale except rather than good triumphing over evil, the strong triumph over the weak. Both sets of fantasies run on worlds that obey the logic of stories, it’s just that grimdark sells a slightly different story to the likes of Tolkien and Lewis.

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