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A Day of Fury

05 Dec

That man is a creature of hell. If he stays here, he’ll turn this town into a hell.

Quite a few westerns have served as social commentaries, using their frontier setting to focus the spotlight on a whole range of issues, as frequently acting as an allegory for the era in which they were made as much as a critique of the old west itself. A Day of Fury (1956) is an interesting case in that it’s less of a social commentary than an examination of human nature, and the less savory side of it at that. I think part of the beauty of the adult-oriented westerns of the 50s lies in the way programmers with modest budgets could tackle complex themes successfully while also telling entertaining stories. It sometimes feels like  current filmmakers have lost this once commonplace skill, either overtly preaching at the audience or veering sharply in the opposite direction and rolling out mindless popcorn fare where you’re required to check your brain at the door. As such, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a movie like this where the makers have sufficient respect for their audience to present an entertaining film while simultaneously crediting them with a modicum of intelligence.

A Day of Fury opens by telling the audience that the Civil War has ended, the frontier is closing, and civilization is advancing. As such, the implication is that we’re in for another end of the trail western, another look at the passing of a way of life. Well that’s true enough up to a point, and yet A Day of Fury is good deal more than that. It’s neither an ode to lost innocence nor a celebration of a brighter future ahead. Instead the movie operates on a more spiritual level, holding up a mirror to the human soul and daring us to take a long hard look at what may be lurking within. Everything starts off in a fairly straightforward manner with a lone horseman, Jagade (Dale Robertson), stumbling into an ambush being set up. The proposed victim is Burnett (Jock Mahoney), the local marshal. When Jagade saves the lawman’s skin it looks like a lead in that’s been seen on many occasions. However, there is also a sense that this film is going to head off in a different direction, the terse dialogue between Jagade and Burnett hinting at something darker and less predictable. Jagade rides ahead into town, ostensibly to tell Burnett’s bride-to-be (Mara Corday) that her man has been delayed, but his real motives gradually become apparent. If there was a tension or edge to the initial meeting between Jagade and Burnett, it’s ramped up considerably as soon as the former sets foot in town. Jagade is a gunfighter, a lethal killer whose reputation precedes him. In fact everything about Jagade harks back to a rapidly disappearing era: from his own violent skills to his acquaintance with the marshal’s betrothed and her time as a saloon entertainer. For Jagade, this represents a last stand of sorts; the changing world around him has left him with no other place to go and he seems keen to turn the clock back. Still, that only amounts to a superficial interpretation of the film. We all know that the past is nothing more than a memory which, despite the strongest yearning, can never be recaptured. And so it is with Jagade; his true function is to confront the facade of respectability and gentility that the town has constructed. The pious righteousness is simply a veneer, and one so thin that it starts to crumble when the slightest pressure is applied. Jagade could, I suppose, be viewed as a kind of malignancy that will have to be cut out at some point, but he could reasonably be seen as the cure as much as the illness. Over the course of one Sunday, and there is significance to the fact that the Sabbath is chosen, the townsfolk begin to regress and descend into the type of amoral thuggishness they had frowned upon only a few hours before. And that’s what I feel the movie is all about – the question of whether our civilized values are so cheap they can be bought or traded away, or whether the roots are deeper and stronger.

Aside from the first five minutes, director Harmon Jones keeps the action of A Day of Fury confined to the backlot western town. While I’m in no doubt budgetary considerations played a big part in that decision, I think it works well on an artistic level too. Everything is contained within a series of tightly controlled locations, heightening the tension and dread that grows as the story progresses. Recently, Toby published a fascinating article in which he revealed that Dale Robertson viewed his character in the movie as an incarnation of the Devil. As I said earlier, the film does have a definite spiritual element running through it and Robertson’s reading of the role is in line with that. Personally, the notion of the movie as a religious allegory makes sense and works: the initial meeting in the desert-like surroundings between Burnett and the left-handed Jagade, and the subsequent temptations that are variously succumbed to, resisted, and overcome. If I had any criticism of this approach, it would only be that I think the final shot of the film arguably lays the symbolism on a little too heavy, and that the message had already been successfully imparted without it. To return to the point I made in my introduction, besides all the ideas and food for thought offered up, the filmmakers never lose sight of the primary goal of presenting an entertaining and well-told tale.

A Day of Fury boasts a strong cast of western players. Dale Robertson’s Jagade is clearly the center of attention, the catalyst for all that takes place. And it’s a marvelously ambiguous part, a character who provokes and toys with those around him. The fact that it all works so well is partly down to the scripting of course, but Robertson’s skill cannot be discounted. There’s an air of authority about the man, a calm self-confidence, tinged too with a touch of distaste both for himself and the weakness all around him. In the opposite corner is Jock Mahoney, stoic, reserved and cool. One could say there’s a passivity to Mahoney’s playing here, but it’s a vital aspect of his character – the only serious rival to Robertson’s satanic influence and the solid rock to whom the town must ultimately turn. And lying somewhere between these two is John Dehner as the preacher. Always a welcome face as far as I’m concerned, Dehner represents the most easily identifiable figure in the town, a man who’s not above weakness but who is also able to recognize that fact and actively work to resist it. As for the others, Mara Corday has a showy part as the former saloon girl whose past returns to haunt her and threaten her future happiness. I thought her weary acceptance of the fragility of so-called respectability was very well realized. In support, Jan Merlin had a pivotal role as the fawning, rat-faced acolyte whose actions finally cause the tide to turn while Carl Benton Reid, James Bell and Howard Wendell all turn in small but noteworthy performances.

A Day of Fury isn’t that difficult to see these days. There’s a Blu-ray available from France, although I’m unsure what the subtitle situation is seeing as it’s a Sidonis release. As a result, I ended up buying the Italian DVD. This may well come from the same source as the image is of excellent quality: the movie is presented in a 2.00:1 anamorphic transfer and comes from a print that exhibits little or no damage. The disc offers the movie either with the original English soundtrack or an Italian dub, subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. Extra features consist of the trailer along with poster and photo galleries. The film itself is one I was eager to see as I had heard a lot of things about it from people whose opinions I greatly respect. I was delighted to discover it was every bit as good as I’d been led to believe. I’ve always enjoyed focusing some attention on pictures that are not so well-known, and I guess this one fits that description. I reckon this is a terrific little movie and should provide plenty to appeal to genre fans and those who simply like smart, well-made films.

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34 Comments

Posted by on December 5, 2013 in 1950s, Westerns

 

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34 responses to “A Day of Fury

  1. jcalberta

    December 5, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Sounds like a very interesting movie. Good write -up.
    It’s also interesting that a lot of these films are almost impossible to get domestically. Fortunately, we have some very avid Westerns fans overseas. Merci !

     
    • Colin

      December 5, 2013 at 8:17 am

      Thanks JC. There was a time when a far more significant number of Universal westerns were unavailable in the US. This one still isn’t, but more have gradually been appearing via MOD discs and TCM sets. I imagine this movie will turn up sooner or later.

       
      • jcalberta

        December 5, 2013 at 9:42 pm

        Thank God for TCM – they’ve turned me on to many Westerns over the years.
        And yes, the new tech does seem to be making a lot stuff more available. It not only improves accessibility but the valuable preservation of these movies – many of which were in danger of becoming lost.
        Have a good Christmas !

         
        • Colin

          December 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm

          TCM in the US, and Canada too I guess, offers a good deal more than the European version. The choice and variety you have seems a lot more attractive. Having said that, there’s arguably a better choice of titles available to buy on DVD & Blu-ray in Europe, and at more competitive prices. Swings and roundabouts really.
          And happy holidays to you too – although they feel a long way off at the moment from my overworked perspective!

           
  2. Cavershamragu

    December 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

    This sounds great Colin. I’ve not seen it – in fact I’ve not even heard of it! Although it is said that Mahoney was not a particularly easy person in private life (well, according to his step-daughter Sally Field anyway), I always like him on-screen (thought he was an excellent Tarzan). Really look forward to this, especially as it’s available in Italy – sounds like ideal Chritmas viewing to me with its religious undertones! Thanks chum.

     
    • Colin

      December 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Well I’d been hearing quite a lot about the film Sergio, and was impressed when I finally got to see it. It’s a tight, economical affair – typical of many of Universal’s westerns – that’s well made and very enjoyable. That Italian DVD sports a very fine transfer – I’m very happy with it.

      I like Mahoney’s screen presence too – I really need to catch up on a few of the Tarzan movies I’ve missed.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        December 5, 2013 at 9:15 am

        Few pleasure in life when it comes to movie viewing like finding a hidden gem.

         
        • Colin

          December 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm

          Absolutely. The thing is you never can tell for sure until you see something for yourself. Recommendations can be misleading at times, but I generally find that people whose judgement I trust rarely disappoint with their suggestions.
          I really like the spareness and the sense of creeping dread – that knowledge that the situation is going to get inexorably worse as events play out – in this movie.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            December 5, 2013 at 1:52 pm

            OK, not very Christmassy when you put it like that, but sounds very impressive for a low budget ‘oater’.

             
            • Colin

              December 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm

              Depends on your mood come Christmas I guess. :)

              Seriously though, some of these low budget movies were so well crafted and so absorbing to watch. The makers really made the most of whatever resources were available to them, and the plots and themes – not to mention the acting – were frequently fascinating.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                December 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm

                Really looking forward to this so I hope my order arrives before Christmas (had to use the dreaded Amazon darn but so be it)

                 
                • Colin

                  December 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm

                  And I hope you enjoy it. I’d love to hear what you think of the movie when you get to see it.

                   
  3. chrisk

    December 5, 2013 at 8:25 am

    I have always enjoyed a western from Dale Robertson and this is one of his best. I saw this when I was a small boy in the 50s. Will look for it soon. Best regards.

     
    • Colin

      December 5, 2013 at 8:33 am

      Chris, Robertson was a very authentic western figure and his genre pictures are generally very enjoyable. I have to agree that, of the ones I’ve seen, this film certainly stood out.

       
  4. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    December 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    At the mention of Dale Robertson, this is the movie my closest in age sister and I immediately think of. He frightened us in this role as children, and while he now impresses us, the earlier effect chillingly remains.

     
    • Colin

      December 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      I can certainly see how Robertson’s role here would be pretty scary if viewed at an impressionable age. Even watching him with jaded adult eyes, there is a chilling quality about both his intensity and his manipulation of the townsfolk. The grim way he goes about turning their various prejudices and weaknesses against them is incredibly cold blooded. A first rate performance for sure.

       
  5. kristina

    December 5, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    nice read, I like Dale Robertson a lot but have yet to see this, thanks for putting it on my radar.

     
    • Colin

      December 6, 2013 at 7:56 am

      You’re welcome Kristina. The film was spoken of highly by a bunch of the regulars here and that drove me on to seek it out. It’s well worth keeping an eye out for.

       
  6. Toby

    December 6, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Great job, Colin. I found this a really tough picture to tackle, but you really knocked it out of the park.

    Robertson has another dark role in The Silver Whip. It’s not as good a film as A Day Of Fury, but his performance is very very good.

     
    • Colin

      December 6, 2013 at 8:01 am

      Thanks a lot Toby. I had the movie on its way to me but your piece pushed it up to the head of the queue. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the way it can be approached on a number of levels really drew me in.

      I’ve yet to see The Silver Whip but I very much want to.

       
  7. john k

    December 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    While we are on the subject of Universal Westerns the screen grabs for the latest batch from
    Sidonis are up on the French Western fansite: http://www.westernmovies.fr
    As mentioned on the previous thread sadly DAY OF THE BAD MAN is 4 x 3 which again raises
    doubts about some vintage Universal CinemaScope titles no longer existing in that format..
    SHOWDOWN IN ABILENE is again 4 x 3 and the screen grabs do look somewhat pallid.
    The good news is that the very interesting RAW EDGE is widescreen and looks great.
    I have never been able to track down a really decent “off air” copy of this film so this is really good
    news. Hopefully those cats in Italy Colin mentioned will put this one out;or better still Koch in
    Germany will issue it as a Blu-Ray.
    RAW EDGE is one of the most offbeat Universal Westerns and has a most interesting cast.
    RAW EDGE was directed by John Sherwood who only directed three features;all good ones!
    (THE MONOLITH MONSTERS,THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US)

     
    • Colin

      December 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      Thanks for the link John. Raw Edge is a new title to me, and those images look quite nice indeed. It really is a shame about the other two – very weak looking, chopped up transfers.
      Still, as you say, there may be other options in the future.

       
  8. garryarmstrong

    December 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Nice little B western. Dale Robertson always brings a little edge to his characters, good, bad or ‘tween. I liked Jock/Jack Mahoney in this one because he’s not the STAR but clearly the “other side” of Dale’s personna. Jan Merlin who cut his teeth way back in “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger’ adds another villain to his resume.Mara Corday who usually played second fiddle to Mari Blanchard who played second fiddle to Jan Sterling is fine as the tinny piano saloon gal. Nice lean, mean character driven western. Waco Johnny Dean would’ve given it a thumbs up!

     
    • Colin

      December 6, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Yes, there’s a really nice cast in this film. I liked seeing Mara Corday in a prominent role here – an actress that did seem to be second or third choice a lot of the time.

       
  9. Prashant C. Trikannad

    December 7, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Colin, thanks for a very fine review of a film I’ve only heard of. I’m not familiar with Dale Robertson although I may have seen him in the odd film or two. Your analysis of filmmaking, in the backdrop of westerns of the mid-20th century, provides much food for thought. Be it films or novels, most westerns hold a mirror to social behaviour as it evolved in tandem with the evolution of the frontier itself. I have detected the philosophical aspect in western novels, if not in western films, where the hero or the lone rider often decides to redeem himself in his own eyes rather than in the eyes of others and ride into the sunset rather than stay back and start a new life.

     
    • Colin

      December 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      Prashant, it’s clear enough that western writing and particularly filmaking of the classical period frequently took on a variety of social themes and examined them within the context of frontier stories. The whole redemption aspect plays a major role of course, and so many of these movies involve the personal journeys of the protagonists. Aside from the matter of the location and time period portrayed, I think the way often complex ideas and issues could be woven into the fabric of something that was superficially a mere entertainment is part of what makes them successful – you rarely get the feeling you’re being preached at, yet the point is still made.

       
  10. Richard--W

    December 8, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for alerting us to this western, Colin, I’m really wanting to see it now. I found an off-air recording I had made years ago but it was unwatchable in full-screen pan & scan. The French blu-ray looks inviting. Let’s convert the currencies. 20.60 EUR = 28.2 USD + 18.79 USD postage = a $46.81 French blu-ray. I don’t buy many discs in that price range. Maybe after the holidays the price will come down.

     
    • Colin

      December 8, 2013 at 10:27 pm

      That’s a considerable amount of money. If it’s any help there is a pretty good version of the movie available on YouTube here:

       
  11. Richard--W

    December 8, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    I wonder if Rory Calhoun didn’t get a similar chance to play the devil in BLACK SPURS (1965), the 4th of 13 budget westerns A.C. Lyles produced at Paramount in the mid-sixties. Calhoun plays a good man turned bounty hunter turned town corrupter. He’s determined to do wrong. An interesting film, and a pleasant surprise among the batch.

     
    • Colin

      December 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      Interesting. I’m not a huge fan of those A C Lyles pictures – there’s something a little depressing about many of them – but this title sounds worthwhile.

       
  12. Richard--W

    December 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    “Stormy Weathers” has a fine piece on True Girt over at West Of The River. I tried to post feedback but the system wouldn’t let me. I’d have to join some function like Google in order to post. So I will save the missive for some other time.

    He also gives a much-needed recap of western author Luke Short, whose novels were the source of several vital, important western films.

    The A.C. Lyle’s westerns are new to me. I’ve seen 3 out of the 13. The reliance on outmoded stereotypes and story-telling cliches is disheartening, but there are still some things to enjoy, the technical craftsmanship for one. Nice to see these old Hollywood pros give it their all. Nice to see Lon Chaney Jr working.

     
    • Colin

      December 10, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Yes, that’s a nice article on True Grit – here’s a direct link for anyone who feels like taking a look.

      The Lyles westerns I’ve seen are watchable enough, but there’s a tired feel to them that I find a little dispiriting. The positives are as you say, their professionalism and the fact they offered a chance for a number of western veterans to keep making genre pictures.

       
  13. Rod Croft

    December 14, 2013 at 2:25 am

    Colin,

    “Day of Fury” was just one of a multitude of Westerns filmed and released in the “Golden 50′s”. There is little doubt that we were “spoilt” for both the number and the diversity of product of most genres. This was driven by the competition for audiences, between the “new” medium of television and the established movie industry; the public reaped the benefit !

    Within the Western genre, itself, we were treated to a great variety of sub-genres – besides the “Traditional”, ( Howard Hawk’s “Rio Bravo”) ; we experienced the “Adult” western, ( Delmer Dave’s “Jubal”), as well as “Film noir”, (Ray Milland’s “A Man Alone”); “Comedy” ( Norman Taurog’s “Partners”), “Contemporary” ( George Stevens’ “Giant”); ” Psychological” ( Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West”); and even the “Musical” ( Fred Zinnerman’s “Oklahoma !”); ” Horror” (Edward Dein’s “Curse of the Undead”); and the “Serial” Western (Columbia’s penultimate effort “Perils of the Wilderness”). A number of your readers may like to create even further divisions in the genre.

    A majority of the product was now filmed in colour and shown in the recently re-discovered “Scope” process, which, in most cases, considerably enhanced their appeal to audiences.

    It was a decade that produced such “classics” as John Sturge’s “Bad Day At Black Rock”; Delmer Dave’s, “3.10 to Yuma”; John Ford’s “The Searchers”; Anthony Mann’s “The Far Country” as well as a multitude of others, too numerous to list, here.

    Such venerated directors as Bud Boetticher, Sherman, DeToth, Vidor, Ray, Walsh, Toureneur, Wise, Fuller, Wyler, King, Hathaway, Curtiz,, as well as those previously mentioned, and many others, contributed their talents to further enhance the genre.

    In my remembrances of this decade in film, I am afraid I am becoming verbose, so with conclude with the hope that the “Western” genre may, one day, regain its former popularity with the public, and so replace ” the popcorn fare” that you have mentioned .

     
    • Colin

      December 14, 2013 at 6:02 am

      A good summary of the 50s western there Rod – touching on the reasons for its popularity, the impressive list of talent working within it, and its scope. It’s the latter that continues to fascinate me particularly – the adaptable, malleable nature of the western and the way such a diverse range of stories could be told within its framework.

       

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