December was Tarantino Month here at SOS, and since January is dedicated to westerns, I thought it would be best to whip up some articles spotlighting films that influenced Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Since I began my list back in December, I’ve noticed similar lists popping up online – all of which are somewhat suspect, since they recommend some terrible films. For my money, all of the movies listed below are essential viewing for fans of Django Unchained, and come highly recommended.
Note: This is the third of a three part article.
I Giorni dell’ira (Blood and Grit) (Day of Anger) (Gunlaw) (Days of Wrath)
Directed by Tonino Valerii
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Tonino Valerii, Renzo Genta
Day of Anger is a spaghetti western directed by Tonino Valerii, who began his career as Sergio Leone’s assistant and would later direct My Name Is Nobody (1973). Lee Van Cleef stars as Frank Talby, a drifter who takes a young Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma), under his wing and teaches him how to survive in the wild wild west. We are deceived into believing Talby is a good man but his true colours soon become clear and his motives turn out to be entirely self serving. In reality Talby is only interested in taking control of Scott’s hometown and cunningly does so through a combination of deceit, murder and blackmail. Now the student is left to stop his master from destroying everyone and everything he knows.
Think Star Wars but in the American West: a young hero must learn to use his natural skills in order to become a man. Along the way he is tempted by the dark side and must eventually defeat his father figure (in a dramatic final showdown, no less), in order to free himself from the shackle of that temptation.
Van Cleef left Hollywood in the ’60s to appear in European spaghetti Westerns, initially as a secondary actor. He will always be remembered first and foremost as playing second fiddle to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Eventually he went on to star in a number of strong entries without being overshadowed by his co-star and became one of the international film scene’s biggest box-office draws. His best efforts (excluding the Leone films) were The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse and of course Day of Anger
Anger is a special film for the actor since his role demands that good and evil cohabit the same character. Frank Talby is at once the hero and the villain of the film. Cleef is in top form as the aging gunman, a wild card who exhibits good and bad qualities in equal measure keeping the viewer guessing his every move, action and motive to the very end. Cleef played both sides of the coin with ease. This is a man you don’t want to fuck with. In Anger he’s a true loner, a drifter who embodied the fierce cynicism of the European vision of the American west. Day of Anger allowed Van Cleef to explore the full range of his talents. His expert gunslinger Frank Talby is polished and ruthless and never merciful when someone gets in his way. In one scene, he burns down a saloon, leaving its owner to perish inside. In another scene he stands up for the young man who is bullied by his fellow townsfolk.
Giuliano Gemma was also a popular actor in the genre. His charm and good looks made him a star on the rise thanks to his roles in A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo. Gemma’s wide eyed innocence contrasts Cleef extremely well. His role is also quite demanding, beginning as the bullied, dopey and naive boy who undergoes dramatic changes throughout the film and culminating in a fantastic showdown in which all the lessons Scott has learned from Talby come into play.
Director Tonino Valerii sure did learn a lot from Sergio Leone but Leone’s genre-defining traits are mostly played down here. Valerii’s camera is more fluid and with less extreme close-ups and less waiting around on Mexican stand-offs to commence. Perhaps his most interesting directorial flourish is in his penchant for utilizing reflected images. The action here is fast and extremely well staged. One of the highlights of the film comes with the arrival of a mysterious assassin who challenges Talby to a duel with muzzle loading rifles executed like a joust on horseback. This set piece alone is a masterclass on direction, camera and editing and can easily stand alongside anything Leone ever directed. D.O.P Enzo Serafin captures the fetid heat and constant brutality of the desert landscape while Riz Ortolani delivers a wild, and typically rousing, trumpet and electric guitar-driven score which is used to great effect throughout the film, particularly during the rotoscope opening titles.
Most interesting about the film’s narrative is how it demystifies the gunslinger’s God-given natural talents in drawing their pistols faster than the average man. Valerii doesn’t present Talby nor Scott as unstoppable and as it turns out, Talby’s gun is mechanically altered to discharge bullets quicker than the average revolver. By the end, every man catches a bullet along the way, and some never recover.
Despite its familiar plot, Day of Anger still manages to be one of the best films of the genre. It is inevitable that Talby and Scott will face each other in the end but as we the viewers are deceived from the opening frames, we are never ever truly sure how it will resolve.
Day of Anger was heavily cut for U.S. release and to my knowledge the full uncut version has been discontinued. If you are lucky enough to find a copy, I recommend picking it up. Valerii’s film is among the best spaghetti westerns ever made.
Da uomo a uomo (Death Rides A Horse) (As Man to Man)
Boasting my favourite title of any Spaghetti Western, Death Rides A Horse opens like a horror film. On a dark stormy night a gang rides in and invades a small ranch home, raping and killing a mother and daughter and killing a father while accidentally leaving their son alive. Hiding under the cupboards the boy witnesses the gruesome proceedings and the event is forever etched in his memory. Bill retains mental souvenirs from each of the killers (a unique piercing, a tattoo of four aces on a chest, and so on). The prologue quickly sets up your standard revenge story as the boy grows up to be an expert gunslinger (played by John Phillip Law), and uses minor traces from that horrific night to hunt down the men who murdered his entire family and execute his revenge. Also in this 15 year span, Ryan (played wonderfully by Lee Van Cleef), is released from prison. The two cross paths and both men quickly realize they are after the same group of bandits. The difference is, one man is seeking vengeance while the other searches for monetary payment. If the story sounds familiar, it was because it was remade in 1971 as Viva Django as part of the long running Django series.
The plot is fairly straight forward and the twist at the end isn’t at all surprising to any viewer paying close attention, but Death Rides a Horse is essential viewing for fans of the genre for producing four very memorable scenes (the opening prologue being the first). Little known director Giulio Petroni, working with cinematographer Carl Carlini, boasts strong camerawork throughout. Bill’s poker-table duel with the gang’s leader is the second highlight, a stand-out sequence using a piano player in the saloon to cue the Mexican stand-off. Petroni’s direction is uncouth but effective. Replete with florid torture and acidulous flashbacks, Petroni drenches the screen with red filters for every traumatic memory Bill encounters.
Much like Day of Anger, Death Rides A Horse is a perverse buddy film in which a young gunslinger and an old-timer find themselves on the same side and wreak vengeance on the same gang of criminals. Lee Van Cleef fits his role perfectly, providing a complete contrast to his better known performances as the anti-hero in previous westerns. Unfortunately Law (best known for starring in Mario Bava’s Diabolik) looks wooden and awkward. Thankfully the man can hold a revolver – showing off his gun-work early in the film (the third highlight of the movie).
The final highlight worth mentioning comes during the overstretched climax, an epic action set piece, featuring the two men pit against an entire army. After a long shootout, both sides stop and break overnight. A traditional Mexican funeral song is played throughout the night to set the stage for what is about to come the morning after. Highlights like these add up to make Death Rides A Horse well worth your time.
The film is also boosted by an orchestral and choral soundtrack from Ennio Morricone (borrowed in Kill Bill ) and ranges from traditional Western to cacophonous jazz. The score is among one of the maestro’s best.
Directed by Don Chaffey
1973, USA / UK
Somebody told the black man he wasn’t a slave anymore. Somebody told the red man this land was his. Somebody lied. Somebody is going to pay.
Shot in Spain with an international cast, this British flick follows two outcasts, a black Union army deserter (Richard Roundtree) and a crippled Indian (Roy Thinnes), who hole up in a church while hunted by a bounty hunter (Nigel Davenport). Charley One-Eye isn’t your typical Western but demands your attention. The casting of Roundtree (Shaft) in the lead role will lead many to assume this is pure ‘blaxploitation’, but Charlie dances between art-house and exploitation. Charley One-Eye will test your patience, playing mostly as a series of extended dialogue scenes between two men, but the end results are fascinating. The ending is overdramatic and the film is certainly bleak and depressing, but it sets out to gradually break down the stereotypes surrounding ethnicity. And in that, it succeeds.
Other recommendations which I will be reviewing throughout the month of January:
The Big GundownThe Grand Duel
The Ugly Ones
Roots TV miniseries
Man With A Blade
Dog Gone South
Directed by Chuck Jones
Written by Michael Maltese
Here is an added bonus, a short animated film from Looney Tunes that Tarantino has recommended himself. Enjoy!
Synopsis: Despite his “Big Soulful Eyes” routine, Charlie Dog is kicked out of a freight car and ends up in Platt Falls, somewhere in the Deep South. Wasting no time in his search for a place to live and a few free meals, Charlie latches on to banjo-playing Colonel Shuffle–who is rapidly driven crazy by Charlie’s aggressively “Yankee” behavior. Just when it appears that a second Civil War is about to begin, the Colonel’s faithful bulldog Belvedere hatches a plan to get rid of Charlie once and for all.