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.