Scott can't take his eyes off Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) when he rolls into town. Taking care of the stranger's horse gets him one dollar closer to his own steed that he'd been dreaming of. Scott can't help but follow the gunslinger around town like a wide-eyed puppy. He even gets a front row seat to Talby shooting dead one of the most powerful men in Clifton: someone who'd been tormenting Scott all his life. Okay, technically it was self-defense, even though Talby goaded Perkins (Romano Puppo) into drawing in the first place. Whatever. Talby takes off before Perkins' men can hunt him down, while Scott's stuck behind as a punching bag for the sons of bitches who couldn't stomach the judge's verdict.
A bruised, bloodied Scott collects the eight dollars he's squirreled away, hops on his mule, and sets out after Talby. In this man he barely knows, Scott sees a surrogate father...someone who'll teach him how to shoot and rise above the very literally shitty life he's endured for some twenty years now. In Scott, Talby sees...well, something, but that'd be telling. Talby isn't the most kindly and generous teacher, leaving his "pupil" beaten, bloodied, and broke, but Scott's persistence just the same earns him a grudging respect. When he returns home to Clifton alongside Talby, Scott is a far cry from the blood-spattered, shit-stained sadsack who'd fled in tears. He's the one wearing the expensive duds, he's the one wielding a gleaming, new pistol, and he's the one who gets to torment and taunt the bullies of days past. While Scott stomps around town with his chest puffed out, Talby is busy dismantling the entire structure of power in Clifton and seizing hold of it for himself. The aging gunslinger intends to collect on an old debt, and no shortage of smoldering ashes and corpses are left in his wake. Scott is so eager to latch onto a father -- someone to teach him, someone to nurture him -- that he remains willfully blind to what a vicious, scheming murderer he's idolized. Talby, meanwhile, takes advantage of an eager, young upstart he can mold in his image and serve as his muscle. They both get what they want, at least for a while, but when they each finally come to the realization there's so much more to the other than they ever would've dreamt, only one of them can walk away...
One of the many reasons that Day of Anger has earned its reputation as one of the all-time great Spaghetti westerns is that Scott's right to be entranced by Talby. Nearly every last nose-high-in-the-air asshole in Clifton treats Scott like something they'd scraped off their shoes, and he's too meek to ever push back. The very first moment the two of them meet, Scott is both literally and figuratively looking up to Talby, and that awe and admiration remains infectious. For all we know, Lee Van Cleef is the one playing anti-hero this time around. Talby quickly kills a man, sure, but Perkins was a prick who had it coming, and the stranger calmly and cooly stands trial for it. Even as Talby continues to ride down a dark path familiar to him but untrod by Scott, he exudes an alluringly mythic cool. Hell, I'm still on his side at least for part of his reign of terror after returning with his protégé to Clifton. The guy's not a virtuous hero, but he's thieving from thieves, and we didn't exactly hold that against Clint Eastwood. When Talby crosses that line in a way from which he can never return, it is horrifying and rightly punctuated by the most lavish setpiece in the film.
Day of Anger, at least in its lengthier Italian version, isn't a breakneck action piece. The violent bursts of gunplay can be outstanding -- perhaps most memorably as Talby and a rival duel on horseback, wielding rifles like a knight's lance -- but this is a story more psychological in nature and content to simmer in execution. I have to admit to finding Day of Anger to get off to an awfully sluggish start, but establishing the put-upon Scott and the rampant condescension throughout Clifton as it does is critical to what follows. By the time Scott learns his first lesson, the film had deeply embedded its hooks into me and refused to let go until that final freeze frame. The father/son relationship between Talby and Scott is engaging because it does, for a while, come across as tough love. Talby doesn't cushion Scott from hard falls; hell, he's directly responsible for many of them, but he wisely tells Scott what to learn each time he tumbles, defeated, to the ground. Without his pupil, Talby could never take control of an entire town, but with him, he may have created the instrument of his own downfall. Strictly in terms of the mechanics of the plot, the final moments of Day of Anger are very much what you'd expect, but the inevitable denouement doesn't feel cathartic or even like much of a victory. That dark pallor is, I'm sure, one of the key reasons why Day of Anger remains so popular among Spaghetti western fanatics. The strengths of its cast, its sharp direction, Riz Ortolani's memorable score, and a screenplay by Spaghetti western and gialli legend Ernesto Gastaldi certainly don't hurt either.
Though many cineastes have been importing Arrow Films' Blu-ray discs from the UK for years now, Day of Anger is part of their first official wave of releases on these shores, and there are few Spaghetti westerns to better announce the label's arrival than this. In fact, two versions of the film are showcased here: the original Italian cut, which clocks in just shy of two hours, and the truncated international release with nearly thirty minutes gutted out.
Nearly every Spaghetti western released so far on Blu-ray stateside has passed through my hands, and I'm sorely tempted to say that Day of Anger is the best looking of them all. Newly transferred from the original Techniscope negative, this presentation is dazzlingly detailed and exceptionally well-defined. Day of Anger is so crisp and colorful that its most impressive moments look as if they belong to a production decades more recent than this. If you'd like a case-in-point:
The very fine veil of grain is rendered masterfully on Blu-ray, which is all the more impressive considering that this disc is stuffed with around four and a half hours of 1080p video. There's not the faintest trace of excessive noise reduction or digital manipulation, looking warm and filmic from its first frame to the last. The Italian and international releases of Day of Anger are presented as a pair of separate encodes on this Blu-ray disc, and the two are all but indistinguishable from one another in quality:
As high as my expectations were for Day of Anger, Arrow Films has wholly and completely eclipsed them. Day of Anger is a film that likely would've come highly recommended no matter the state of the presentation, but an effort this extraordinary makes its Blu-ray release that much more essential.
Day of Anger seizes hold of most every available byte on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Both versions of the film are presented at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and have been encoded with AVC. This combo pack also includes two DVDs, each with a separate cut of Day of Anger.
The extended version of Day of Anger features two monaural, 24-bit PCM soundtracks: one in Italian and the other in English. The truncated cut is presented exclusively in English, with its uncompressed 1.0 audio dropping down to 16 bits.
The same as most every other Spaghetti western, the actors in Day of Anger were speaking whatever language they were most comfortable with on the set, and all of the dialogue in the finished film was recorded after production had wrapped. In that sense, the English rendition is every bit as valid as what unspooled in theaters over in Italy. Personally, I find the performances to be much stronger in Italian, even though I do miss Lee Van Cleef's immediately distinctive voice. So much of the acting in the English soundtrack is awfully stilted and unnatural, and Scott's Southern-fried country boy accent is nails on chalkboard. It can be a trade-off, though. The Italian dialogue is strained and edgy, though not to a greater extent than basically any other Spaghetti western I've come across. The line deliveries are cleaner in English but are so clumsily acted that it's ultimately a more painful listen. There's more of a persistent background noise in the English audio, and sound effects are often balanced differently between the two tracks. Sometimes the score sounds wheezing, dated, and meek in the English track, and other times I'd toggle back and forth to hear nearly perfect parity. The big musical number in Talby's saloon is one sequence where the differences are unmistakeable. I'm assuming that most people who'd take the time to read a technical writeup of a Blu-ray disc's audio would want to experience Day of Anger in Italian, and what Arrow Films has delivered here leaves very little room for complaint. It's as clean and clear as I'm sure is feasible with the elements on-hand, and I love that the dynamic range is expansive enough for Riz Ortolani's score to have that much of a bottom to it. Very well done.
English subtitles are offered for all versions of Day of Anger, including separate streams for the Italian and English soundtracks in the original cut of the film. This means, thankfully, that the Italian version has been translated rather than merely transcribed from the English soundtrack.
As many times as I've heard that such and such label is the Criterion of Cult Cinema, Arrow Films really has earned that title with their first wave of releases in the U.S. The extras and packaging for Day of Anger are every bit as outstanding as the presentation of the film itself. This is a three-disc set, including one Blu-ray disc and a pair of DVDs. It's appreciated that the DVD side of this combo pack is lavished with every bit as much love and attention, featuring both cuts of the movie as well as scores of extras. The cover is reversible, featuring new artwork by default and Day of Anger's original poster art on the other. That vintage painted artwork has been screened onto each disc as well. The clear case is thicker than usual -- think Criterion or Grindhouse width -- and an extensive set of liner notes has been tucked inside. As for the on-disc extras:
The Final Word
Day of Anger ranks near the top of most every list I've come across of the all-time greatest Spaghetti westerns, and its reputation is well-deserved. I'm in awe of what Arrow Films has delivered with this opening salvo, and that goes for their choices of films for the label's American debut as well as the truly exceptional presentations they've put together. Very, very Highly Recommended.