REVIEW — Day of Anger (1967)

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.


REVIEW – Wake in Fright (1971)

wake-in-frightFilmJuice have my review of Ted Kotcheff’s sensational Australian film Wake in Fright.

Released this week by Masters of Cinema, Wake in Fright is one of those films that stays with you forever. Set in the middle of the Australian outback, the film is structured around a descent into madness after a middle class school teacher gets stuck in a working class mining town called The Yabba. Initially smug and contemptuous of the working class culture that surrounds him, the teacher is forced to make friends and make do and so finds himself drinking, gambling, hunting and fighting… his life one bender after another without room to think or breathe. However, rather than being a simple critique of working class habits from a middle class perspective, the film broadens its critique to all of Australian society:

Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?

As I point out in my review, the film functions almost like a non-genre revisionist western in so far as it sets out to debunk and deconstruct the national icon that is the Australian bushman. Interestingly, while the Australian film industry has produced a number of revisionist westerns (including the excellent Red Hill, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) almost all of them are devoted to addressing the various ways in which white Australians mistreated  Indigenous Australians. One of the ways in which white Australians mistreated indigenous Australians is by making them invisible and perpetuating the myth that Australia was an uninhabited landscape before the arrival of the white man. As I point out in my Red Hill piece, this tendency to make indigenous Australians disappear is actually being perpetuated by the fact that all of these films about terrible white people are themselves directed by white people! As a result, Wake in Fright‘s decision to pick a fight with the predominantly white bushman and give his culture both barrels is far less problematic than most of the real Australian revisionist westerns.

There’s also a lovely bit in one of the interviews included on the DVD where someone describes how the first Australian screenings went quite badly with one person standing up and shouting “this ain’t us!” to which a member of the cast responded, gloriously, “Sit down mate, this is us!”.

This film is really something special.