You’ve found a new love in your life, haven’t you Vance? You’re in love with hate.
In some earlier pieces I wrote about the westerns of Anthony Mann, the matter of the order of production of his first few efforts came up. One of this site’s regular visitors, Blake Lucas, was kind enough to clear up what is often a confusing issue. Anyway, in connection with that, we also touched on the evolution of Mann’s style as he settled into his western period. The Furies (1950) was his second foray into the genre, and it seems to me at least that the film bears the hallmarks of a transitional picture. Mann started out making noir thrillers, and polished, highly regarded ones at that, before changing tack and moving west. His first three westerns, partially as a result of the use of black and white photography, retained some of film noir’s mood and sensibilities. The Furies is a very dark film, visually and thematically, yet suffers from a fault that shouldn’t be all that surprising when we consider its place within Mann’s filmography. I think it’s fair to say the director hadn’t fully found his feet in the genre, the upshot of which being a film that’s something of a mash-up of genres and styles, perhaps a reflection of a filmmaker who had not fully decided on the direction he wanted to follow.
The Furies is a ranch, a vast New Mexico spread presided over by the flamboyant T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston). Jeffords is one of those self-made men so common to the western, a latter-day empire builder who has stamped his authority on the section of the frontier that he seized, tamed and held. Such men are frequently given to expansiveness in word and gesture, I guess we could say they earned the right, yet are also prone to all the petty weaknesses that afflict lowlier individuals: jealousy, vanity, loneliness and greed. Of these, perhaps vanity is the most treacherous, for powerful men have the means and ruthlessness to indulge it. Tellingly, Jeffords has a grand portrait of himself dominating the entrance hall of his home, and sits in his study flanked on one side by a bust of Napoleon and on the other by his own likeness. He’s lord of all he surveys, even going so far as to issue his personalized local currency. But a man like this can only extend his authority so far, and in Jeffords’ case the one person capable of challenging him is his daughter. Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is a wilful and headstrong young woman, cast in the same reckless mold as her father. She is first seen, on the eve of her ineffectual brother’s wedding, brazenly trying on her late mother’s gown in the bedroom her father has forbidden all to enter. There, in a nutshell, we have a neat summation of the relationship between Vance and Jeffords; she has, to all intents and purposes, taken on the role of her departed mother. However, any such relationship is fundamentally flawed for the simple reason that the parties involved must naturally look outside for genuine fulfillment. In Vance’s case it appears that she is drawn to the roguish Mexican, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), who has been a squatter on the Furies from way back. Still, this isn’t a tale where anything can be taken for granted, and it turns out that another man is vying for her affections. Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) is a professional gambler with a grudge against Jeffords based on the dispossession of his family. If Jeffords feels some dissatisfaction at his daughter’s choice of suitors, it’s as nothing compared to the violent dislike she feels for the woman he brings into their home. Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) is a self-confessed adventuress, trading her political influence for a share of Jeffords’ wealth. Such a charged situation is almost bound to tip over into violent confrontation, and does so in highly melodramatic fashion. A memorable and disfiguring assault with a pair of scissors leads to a hanging, and the die is cast. Father and daughter are pitted against one another in a struggle for ultimate control of the Furies.
The Furies derives from a novel by Niven Busch and, like Pursued and Duel in the Sun, mixes in a lot of dark Freudian themes. Personally, I like this kind of stuff but I guess it can come across as a little too ripe for some tastes. The confused relationships that constitute the core of the story are all based on a warped blend of love and hate that reach near mythical proportions. Of course the title itself has its roots in the classical myths – the Furies being the three snake-haired goddesses charged with handing out punishment and retribution – and is highly appropriate given the personal trials all the main characters are destined to suffer at one another’s hands. I think Busch is probably the most melodramatic writer to work within the western genre, but this quality works well enough with films of the period. It also tended to attract directors who had experience of film noir and the kind of off-centre psychology that such pictures often dealt with. Anthony Mann’s noir roots are very much in evidence here, with an abundance of low angle shots picking out ceilings in the interiors to emphasise the tense and restrictive aspects of the story. There’s also an unremitting darkness about it all; much of the action takes place either at night or in the half-light of dusk or dawn, with figures frequently shot in shadow or silhouette. I see this film as a hybrid noir/melodrama/western, a halfway house for Mann if you like. Still, there are plenty of examples of the visual motifs he would later develop as he grew more comfortable with the genre. He draws attention to the stark, barren landscapes dominated by rocks. And then there’s the trademark focus on high places and the struggles that take place there. The film’s key scene, where Jeffords and Vance’s fates are sealed, occurs during the siege of the Herrera home high atop a forbidding rock formation.
The Furies really showcases the talents of both Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. Huston had a distinguished career on both stage and screen and this was to be his last role – he passed away shortly after completing the film. As it happens, the part of T.C. Jeffords was a fitting one to sign off on. Huston drew on all his vast experience to give a well-rounded portrait of a complex man. Jeffords is neither hero nor villain; he’s capable of hanging a man out of pure spite, of blackmailing another to achieve his ends, yet he’s also charming, resourceful and philosophical enough to accept his own limitations. Even though we see him behave selfishly and ruthlessly towards those who cross him, it’s impossible not to admire him and feel sympathy too. In short, Huston presented the viewer with a flesh and blood man, a real person whom we ultimately judge on those terms.
Stanwyck too got her teeth into the part of Vance, and transformed what initially seems something of a caricature into a woman the audience could respect. As someone who could move easily in both the noir and western worlds, Stanwyck was ideally cast. You never feel there’s anything affected about her toughness, and her rage, when provoked, is as raw and livid as the disfiguring wounds she leaves on her rival. Gilbert Roland didn’t have a huge part in the movie, but it is a significant one in relation to the plot. I’ve always enjoyed the swaggering, swashbuckling machismo that came naturally to him, and as Juan Herrera he had ample opportunity to show that off. He also brought a real sense of dignity to his character, especially as prepared to meet his fate. When I looked at Pursued, I commented on how well Judith Anderson handled herself. The Furies saw her taking on an entirely different character and she demonstrated just how versatile she could be. Flo Burnett starts out as someone whose obvious insincerity does grate, but the transformation she undergoes, as a result of her physical trauma, is well realized. By the end, she commands your sympathy. In the midst of all these strong performances, Wendell Corey suffers somewhat. He was never the kind of actor to grab the attention at the best of times, possessing a quiet, understated quality, and I’m not sure westerns were his ideal environment. Mind you, it doesn’t help that he had to play a pretty obnoxious character whose cocksure smarm feels a little misplaced. In addition to the leads, there were nice supporting turns from Albert Dekker, Thomas Gomez and Beulah Bondi.
The Furies is out on DVD in the US from Criterion, and it’s one of their usual, very professional packages. The image is in good shape, although I have seen more sparkling transfers from the company, but it does have one irritating issue. Criterion went through a stage of issuing Academy ratio movies in pictureboxed format (essentially, a black border running around all four sides) supposedly to compensate for overscan on CRT sets. I never liked this practice; the gain is minimal, the resolution is lessened, and the whole idea is increasingly redundant as HD and HD ready sets become more common. In terms of extras, this is a pretty stacked edition. Firstly, the movie comes in an attractive slipcase that also includes a copy of Niven Busch’s novel. Then there’s a 36 page booklet containing an article on Anthony Mann by Robin Wood, and a translation of an interview with the director carried out for Cahiers du Cinéma by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol. On the disc itself, the highlights are a commentary by Jim Kitses, a 1967 interview with Mann, a 1931 interview with Huston, and a video interview with Nina Mann, the director’s daughter. As I said earlier, I regard The Furies as the work of a director in transition. I hope that doesn’t appear to be a negative assessment of the film as there’s a lot to admire in it. Still, I do feel I ought to point out that the blending of styles isn’t always as smooth as it could be. Overall, I think the performances and visuals carry the day and point towards even more accomplished work to come. Even if it’s not Mann’s best movie it makes for interesting and rewarding viewing.