Spaghetti westerns are marked above all by a monotonous emphasis on revenge, violence, and sadism perpetrated by ambiguous antiheroes and the men who hate them. The best examples inject social commentary or dress it up with a flashy style of widescreen vistas and ear-catching music. Day of Anger is among the better examples, especially when we can see it in such a clear, vibrant, properly letterboxed transfer.
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Time has not only been kind to Staircase; it’s also been illuminating. Directed by Stanely Donen and scripted by Charles Dyer from his play, the entire drama consists of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison playing an old gay couple sniping at each other in elaborately bitchy dialogue—which pretty much describes the currently acclaimed Britcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.
In 1969, mainstream critics found the movie tasteless. In the post-Stonewall era, gay activists like Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet found it embarrassing because, in the context of just about zero depictions of homosexuality in cinema apart from cross-dressing psychos and suicidal sissies, the movie relies on the stereotype of the effeminate, limp-wristed, campy, mother-dominated queen instead of a politically preferred image of butch “mainstream” types. It was the era when one character in the supposedly progressive and groundbreaking The Boys in the Band wished “we just didn’t hate ourselves so much.” Films like Staircase and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George were bleak instead of validating, and activists didn’t want that any more than they wanted movies about drag queens (even though there really were drag queens at Stonewall).
With arresting use of slow-motion and freeze-frames, the opening credits of Blind Woman’s Curse present a beautiful clash between one gang and a rival group whose tattoos form one dragon on their backs, and who are led by the daughter (cult icon Meiko Kaji) of the late boss. This gives us the impression that we’re seeing a samurai movie, but the scene turns out be the heroine’s dream (yet also a flashback) experienced while in a women’s prison. Contemporary audiences didn’t know it, but the beautiful and self-possessed Kaji would soon become famous in a series of films about Female Convict Scorpion, which now gives the scene an extra frisson.
She only appears in the last 15 minutes of the film. Mrs. Voorhees’ presence is, at first, rather disorienting, since we’ve seen so few adults during the course of the carnage. As she tries to comfort a distraught and very upset Alice, her almost blasé response to the concept of a killer on the loose makes her instantly suspect.
Still, we’re willing to go with this well-meaning matriarch, at least, up to a point. And then Betsy Palmer, TV star from decades past, opens up her predatory pearly whites and starts telling the story of a boy named Jason, and soon we see the light. As the mother of the drowned lad, Mrs. Voorhees means business, and in her line of work (carving up teenagers), business is booming.
The Scorpio Letters’ two-fisted hero is Joe Christopher (Alex Cord), an American ex-cop who freelances for a British spy division. He spends the movie smoking cigarettes, uttering weary remarks more petulant than witty, and glowering from under his eyebrows, as though constantly ducking his head to avoid further dialogue. Shirley Eaton, best known from Goldfinger, is the statuesque yet blasé female agent who’s around to provide sex appeal and finally require a timely rescue.
The plot involves a blackmail ring organized by someone called Scorpio. Neither his identity nor activities are interesting, but we’re distracted easily enough by various murders and attempted murders that pop up like expectable signposts along the winding way to the wrap-up. Almost as pleasing to the eye as Eaton are the attractive locations (and backlots), shot in pretty color by Ellsworth Fredericks. Dave Grusin’s romantic score lilts along constantly, occasionally bothered by a pesky flute.