The Spaghetti Westerns are funny sub-genre. Made by Italians who grew up in Fascist Italy and idolised America, at least as boys, they mythologised the ‘wild west’ in an entirely different way to how Hollywood had. They brought verve and an edge to a genre that had once dominated American filmmaking, but by the 60s was fading out of fashion.
The man who kicked it all off looms large over the whole genre, defining it like possibly no other director does for any other genre: Sergio Leone is Spaghetti Westerns.
Leone’s westerns – mainly Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the so called ‘Dollars Trilogy’ – were highly stylised and visually very bold, accompanied by searing scores by the great Ennio Morricone. The films also presented a very blurred moral definition between the goodies and baddies; everyone’s a born sinner, but redemption can be found through sacrifice.
Day of Anger was made by Leone’s Assistant Director from Fistful of Dollars, Tonino Valerii, and it’s fair to say the student has been influenced by the master, but maybe a bit too much.
The film starts with an introduction to the town of Clifton, a small desert city in the old west. We are shown the city through the eyes of our young lead, Scott, who collects people’s shit for a living (literally) and sweeps up boardwalks, a truly Sisyphean task in a dusty, desert town.
The thing is, no one likes Scott and he is bullied constantly. He’s the bastard son of a prostitute (dead), who lives in a stable with an old drunk (his only friend), and he never stands up for himself. He doesn’t even have a second name! Sucks to be Scott No-Name.
But on this particular day, the town’s usual bullying of Scott is interrupted by a well dressed stranger with a face like a sarcastic eagle who rides into town; Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef), a legendary and feared gunfighter. He meets Scott and treats him like a human being, and soon after shoots a man for insulting Scott. Talby then smartly decides it’s best to get the heck out of Clifton. Worried about reprisals from the townspeople, Scott follows him.
Scott sees a fearless, independent man in Talby and wants to learn from him. Talby is reluctant to have a student, but Scott is persistent so Talby lets him tag along.
Predictably they develop a bond, as Talby imparts the ten lessons of being Talby (not that he calls them that, sadly) and Scott helps his teacher get out of scrapes. We also find out Talby’s reason for going to Clifton in the first place was to collect money and get revenge, so they both go back there and get some of that. Of course they get revenge. It’s a Spaghetti Western, FFS.
So far the story feels like a second rate Leone western knock off, and the similarities go beyond the story. The intro credits are very similar to those from Fistful of Dollars, the score is Morricone by way of 60s London (no, me neither), it stars one of Leone’s regulars, Lee Van Cleef, and three of the key sets used are the exact same ones Leone used in his films. But then, halfway through, when you start thinking ‘fuck it, I’m just going to put For a Few Dollars More on’, things change.
At the halfway point some significant revenge-getting occurs. Now in most Leone films, heck, in most westerns, this where the film wraps up, but Day of Anger has a whole second half to get through. It’s from this point that the film settles down and opens up, like it is no longer beholden to follow the lines carved by its famous ancestors.
The story stops jumping around the desert and settles in Clifton, which allows the city to come to life and take on more of a character. The put upon Scott finally finds his voice and becomes a real person instead of a human stress-reliever, and the story between Talby and Scott gains a humanity, complexity and even emotion, which is often lacking in Spaghetti westerns and their hyper-masculine revenge stories.
By the end, Scott’s dilemma, which is developed remarkably late in the film, feels genuine and tough; the lessons Talby taught him gave him power and confidence, but at the cost of his decency and good nature. This cypher for suffering has become a real person who must now make a decision about the kind of man he wants to be in future.
It should also be noted that the film really benefits from the high definition treatment. Perhaps a little over-saturated at times, the clarity and lush colour of the image is truly gorgeous in parts. Although the HD does show up some rather odd makeup, which was the style of the time.
Day Of Anger takes some time to find its voice and set out its stall, away from its overbearing ancestors, but once it does, the film blooms and offers a story that presents the familiar tarnished mythology of the Spaghetti Western, but with a heart and emotion that’s closer to its American founding fathers.
Day of Anger is released by Arrow Video on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 30th.
- If you’re a big fan of Leone’s westerns, as I am (in case you hadn’t noticed), then you can play a fun game of spotting bit-part actors who appeared in his films. I counted 4. Maybe you can make a drinking game out of it?
- Reckon the scene where they drag Van Cleef around in circle is a reference (jab?) to Leone, who loved using arenas instead of streets for climatic moments.
- The duel on horseback with rifles is absolutely bonkers and needs to be made into a game show.
- The final shot is weird! Touching, but well weird.