Get to Know Your Local Badasses: DAY OF ANGER (1967) And CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES (1969)
It’s understandable why Clint Eastwood is the avatar for the spaghetti western, as he didn’t so much create an archetype, but instead reconfigured the cowboy completely. Before his work with Sergio Leone – crafting a character so otherworldly he didn’t even require a name – those who donned boots and spurs were often Roy Rogers cartoon caricatures, dusty, do-gooder gunmen or complicated frontiersmen fronting the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks. With towering, widescreen bombast, Eastwood and Leone aided in the birth* of western all'italiana, and like all great filmic fads, the Italians rode this successful new wave until it collapsed into a financial drought.
Like a farm system offshoot of a bigger, better football league, the Italian genre scene churned out an incredible stable of talent, all of whom rotated through separate styles with ease. A director like Umberto Lenzi could make both a Western like Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and the war film Desert Commandos within a year of one another without breaking a sweat, and then cycle through to a giallo (So Sweet…So Perverse) and softcore thriller (Paranoia) before 1970 even rolled around. Italian exploitation in the '60s and '70s was formulaic, but the filmmakers it bred all had unique, workmanlike visions – able to churn out entries that required the filmmaker to check off certain boxes while still retaining a visual fingerprint. This factory-line system ensured there were many more misses than hits, but the truly great output of Italian genre cinema has a perverse staying power; vibrant, weird and even a little icky.
The Italians also produced their own batch of stars (Giuliano “Angel Face” Gemma being one of the earliest in Italowesterns). But if there were ever a man who could gracefully step out of Clint’s massive shadow, it was Lee Van Cleef. It certainly helps that Van Cleef solidified himself as a stalwart battling the Man With No Name as the titular villain in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. However, Van Cleef then proceeded to carve his visage on the Mount Rushmore of Outlaw Badasses (Not Pictured: Franco Nero, Kurt Russell, Warren Oates), squinting his way through the souls of evildoers in Barquero and The Grand Duel. Possibly best of all the angular cowboy’s starring shoot out roles is lesser-known masterwork, Day of Anger, where he plays the walking manifestation of corruptive evil, Frank Talby. Instantly recognizable due to Tarantino copping Riz Ortolani’s theme for Django Unchained (surprise, surprise), the film is a lean, mean showcase for Van Cleef’s dominant screen presence, and sports the plainspoken style of director Tonino Valerii (My Name is Nobody).
Playing like the Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer of spaghetti westerns, Day of Anger follows the literal education of garbage hauling bastard, Scott Mary (Gemma). Mary’s fed up with getting kicked around by the local ruffians and sees a mentor in Talby (Van Cleef), a gunman who rode into his duty town to collect a $50,000 debt. But it quickly becomes clear that Talby’s not to be trifled with. When the local barkeep and his regular patron (whose wife just had twins) insult Scott, the quick draw kills the new father for infringing on their drinks. Talby’s acquitted (after forcing the whiskey slinger to swear he witnessed “self defense”), and Mary chases after the fleeing bandito, pleading with the bad man to teach him how to handle himself. Talby swiftly slaps the kid, whilst simultaneously delivering the first of his ten screeds: “never beg another man”.
Evil is infectious in this lawless land, and Mary gets hooked on the power of his gun, loving the rampage he and his new teacher embark upon. Numerous dead bodies are left in their wake, as Gemma sells the former laughing stock’s transformation, often only through body language and his glittering eyes. There’s a thrill to exacting vengeance on all those who spat in his direction before; a sense of pride he’d never quite felt. However, this evil origin story is turned on its ear by the end, as Scott learns the last of Talby’s lessons too late: “when you start killing, you can’t stop.” He’s become a monster; driven by nothing but pure, burning anger at a universe who rejected his soul because of his status in life. So he either has to murder the mentor who molded him, or live by this new anti-morality he’s discovered. In a way, Valerii has created a deconstruction of the Western icon, brusquely containing the usual vistas to a boxy microcosm, in which a boy discovers being a man is the not the same as being an avenger.
Like Day of Anger, Cemetery Without Crosses (a/k/a The Rope and the Colt) is centered on broad themes regarding the poison pills of vengeance and violence. A gravy-splattered Yojimbo, Cemetery concerns itself with a feud between two filthy families, and the lone gunslinger (Robert Hossein) who finds himself tangled up in a revenge plot concocted by a recent widow (Michèle Mercier) who only wants to earn her outlaw husband a proper burial. Soon, the town is transformed into the titular burial plot, where mens’ graves are merely marked by blood spilt on the ground. It’s an unhurried, almost Biblical morality tale Hossein helms with panoramic panache. Yet Cemetery Without Crosses also packs quite the horrific punch, as no gunslinger will escape death’s clutches once the brutal cowboy dons his single black glove.
Nevertheless, Hossein’s film is far from a humorless affair. You can sense the playful touch of surrealist giallo master Dario Argento (who possibly** co-wrote the screenplay) being peppered into the production. Even the black leather glove Hossein’s character slips on when he’s about to throw down feels like the movie working on a winking wavelength; a kissy-faced acknowledgment to film buffs of any era who sit down with this intensely visual pulp operetta. Cemetery Without Crosses is cinema that’s drunk in love with its own form, lingering on tight close-ups and allowing the audience to drink in sun-scorched ghost towns. No wonder the Almería-shot ballad to blunt force poeticism is dedicated to Leone in the end credits (and may have even been partially directed by the auteur). Hossein’s not interested in utilizing the same square frame Valerii does; instead opting to reveal these deadly hordes as being dwarfed by their surroundings – evildoers in a blasted universe defined by a godless code.
Outside of thematic similarities and a love for dirt-smeared stage play, both Day of Anger and Cemetery Without Crosses are saddled with superlative scores, riffing on the usual Spanish guitar motifs whilst offering up their own idiosyncratic sonic variations (Scott Walker’s theme for Cemetery is an all-timer). But that was what made these spaghetti westerns so special – they took an American mold and reshaped it in their own grimy image, complete with a new set expectations. The scrappy workmen who emerged in Leone’s wake never seemed like they were ever interested in making movies entirely like his, but instead rode a wave of genre popularity in order to flex their own individual styles. The end result is a stack of deep cut gems that are still waiting to be re-discovered, and these are just two of many in need of a much wider, appreciative audience.
Both Day of Anger and Cemetery Without Crosses are available on Blu-ray and DVD now from Arrow Home Video.
*Contrary to popular belief, Leone did not invent the spaghetti western, but rather reinvented the form. Italian Westerns such as Giorgio Ferroni’s Il Fanciullo del West date back to WWII, produced on account of the country’s fascist government outlawing American cinema from its theaters during the war.
**Argento is credited in most international prints of the picture, but Hossein insists the Once Upon a Time in the West co-scribe had nothing to do with its creation.