“DAY OF ANGER”— When a Gunfighter Comes to Town

day of anger

“Day of Anger” (“I giorni dell’ira”)

When a Gunfighter Comes to Town

Amos Lassen

It was Sergio Leone who turned Lee Van Cleef into a major star with “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Afterwards Van Cleef stayed in Italy to make a few more ore spaghetti westerns. This is one of them and it was directed by Leone’s former assistant Tonino Valerii and it is considered by many to be among the best of that genre.

Street cleaner Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma) is relentlessly bullied by the people of Clifton, a small town. When legendarily ruthless master gunfighter Frank Talby (Van Cleef) comes into town, Scott jumps at the chance to rise up from the gutter, and maybe even surpass Talby’s own skills. However there is the question as to why Talby doing in Clifton in the first place? The chemistry between the two is lively and fun to see and that along with some interesting action scenes as well as a jazzy music score by Riz Ortolani score make this a movie to be seen and remembered.

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We tend to remember Lee Van Cleef as playing second fiddle to Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Not many remember that afterwards he made a number of strong entries in the genre without being overshadowed by his co-stars and director.

The plot of “Day of Anger” is rather typical genre oater— an aging gunman takes on a young protégé. Because he had been treated so badly by the townspeople, Scott wants revenge and he befriends Talby to learn how to get that revenge. Everything was going well until Talby kills the man who raised him and now the protégé must use his lessons to turn on his teacher.

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We see Cleef in top form as the aging gunman and up-until-now, directors he had worked with always wisely chose strong, usually younger, actors to act second to him. Here Valerii chose Giuliano Gemma, a charismatic young man on a fast rise. He perfectly compliments Cleef as he plays the abused, clueless protagonist that undergoes dramatic changes throughout the film with an array of emotions.

\Van Cleef possesses a feral cynicism of this distinctly European vision of the American west. He is given the opportunity to explore the full range of emotions and his gunslinger Frank Talby is slick and ruthless and possessed of a burning intelligence and ambition. Talby represents a kind of justice, but the justice he metes out to the corrupt leaders of Clifton, is poetic, and not at all motivated by an innate sense of moral justice. In reality Talby is only interested in taking care of himself, making a lot of money and eventually taking control of Clifton. He uses a combination of guile, gunfire and blackmail to do this. When Talby takes Scott we are deceived into believing Talby is a good man outraged by the disrespect and injustice that Scott has had to endure, but his motives turn out to be selfish and self serving.

Scott is his opposite who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Every slight and humiliation his character Scott endures is visible on his face. We first see Scott on his daily rounds; cleaning out toilets, sweeping floors, having the fact that he has no father being constantly thrown at him. There are those in Clifton that take great joy in abusing him and we soon realize that he is the emotional core of the film.

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Talby is the only character to show him kindness and respect (in fact Talby shoots a man dead for objecting to Scott drinking with him in the saloon) and soon after the film morphs into the familiar theme of the teacher/student relationship. We might not realize this at first because of Scott’s childish naivety. Talby teaches him some hard and harsh lessons, which include allowing a useless citizen to beat Scott to a pulp. We see him as idiotic and comedic but he is filing away every lesson. Talby seems to enjoy watching Scott make his mistakes, before offering his take on things. Even at moments of intense gratitude there is the sense that this is a friendship based on mutual convenience, and when one of them inconvenienced by it will soon be over.

 Talby begins blackmailing his way to control of Clifton and Scott is allowed his opportunity to return some of the vitriol he experienced. The ultimate lesson that Scott learns is that he is nothing without a gun and that those without the power to make life and death decisions are exploited in this world. When a mysterious assassin arrives and challenges Talby to a duel on horseback with front loading rifles, it is filmed operatically and we see Talby’s sadism when he deals with those that stand in his way. We really see this when he leaves the corrupt owner of a saloon to burn and die in a fire and then Talby builds a new saloon on the ashes of the old one.

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 However, Talby’s best-laid plans are undone by a series of errors made due to his own vanity and his own greed for power and material gain. The film is very clear in its statement about how power corrupts and even those who are free of blame are dragged into deceit and lies. We sense the inevitability that

Talby and Scott will face each other in a duel, and we have no idea how to predict the outcome. I see Talby as the classical anti-hero. He works for justice until justice is no longer in his best interests. Scott on the other hand wants the town to fear him after years of mistreatment, but he soon finds Talby is being rough and unfair when he realizes that there are other men working are helping him take over the town for himself. The murder of Scott’s old mentor, an ex-marshal turned stable owner who once ran Talby out of Abilene at gunpoint, is what sets Scott against Talby and this is what leads to the showdown between master and apprentice.

One more point—the movie has had several names including “Day of Wrath”, “Gunlaw” and “Blood and Grit”.

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