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.
20 thoughts on “The Furies”
Interesting analysis, I remember watching this years ago I will have to give it another watch after reading your excellent post.
Thank you. I think the acting and Mann’s direction are the best aspects of this one. The plot’s not bad and raises some meaty issues but it does have that hyperbolic feel to it that was characteristic of Busch’s writing.
I have never seen this one – I am actually shocked to be typing this, but I’ve never got round to it … I’ll go buy the criterion DVD and get right back to you! I love Stanwyck and Huston and am a big fan of Mann so … I have no excuses – I’ll just go and hang my head in shame. I skimmed your review a bit to avoid spoilers though I know you are iusually pretty good about didging anythign too sensitive.
I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself for missing this movie Sergio. I think it’s one of Mann’s lesser known works and has probably eluded a lot of people. As a fan of Huston, Stanwyck and Mann, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed when you do get to see it.
I don’t like the pictureboxing, but apart from that, the Criterion release is a lovely edition.
Just appalled with myself, though you will keep throwing up these little gems to remind me of my lack of all-knowing-ness … I have now ordered the Criterion so will get back to you on that score. Speaking of picture-boxing, I just waded in over at the Hammer rstoration blog (http://blog.hammerfilms.com/) where it looks like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is going to be released in the Academy Ratio and people are complaining that it shoudl be in 1.66:1 instead – surely one can just zoom the picture on the telly – with Blu-ray in particular I don’t find the difference noticeable myself
I’d love to hear what you think when you do see the movie.
Re the Frankenstein business, I would imagine that zooming would work as long as there’s no cropping of the Academy image. Zooming does lose some resolution of course, but it’s unlikely to be fatal on a Blu-ray.
Another fine review of an intriguing sounding film, Colin! I’m familiar with Mann’s later work but have seen little of his noir stuff and have never caught up with THE FURIES. It does sound a bit ripe but there’s nothing wrong with that if handled well (I’m quite partial to DUEL IN THE SUN when in the right mood). Stanwyck seems the tough, capable, feisty type, a natural fit for westerns, yet she didn’t make too many of them, really. It’s funny, though, that arguably she’s most well known today, at least with most casual viewers, for her work on THE BIG VALLEY.
Thanks for the detailed DVD info as well…that’s a weird decision on Criterion’s part, windowboxing the film. Sounds very annoying, and as you say, unnecessary with most modern TV sets.
Hi Jeff. As I said to Sergio, I know this isn’t one of Mann’s better known works. It’s a pity actually, as it’s deserving of a bit more attention. The movie’s not anywhere near as delirious as Duel in the Sun, but few pictures are I guess. It’s melodramatic, yet tolerably so.
Stanwyck didn’t make that many westerns for the big screen but, as you say, her work on The Big Valley creates the illusion that she did. The bulk of her appearances in the genre comes in the 50s, and she seemed quite comfortable out west.
Not so many comments and it appears some who follow you here simply haven’t seen it yet. I think they have something to look forward to.
I say that although I would rate it the least of Mann’s 50s Westerns, but that is in context that for me that they are all outstanding (only the 1960 CIMARRON, which he seemed to have abandoned before it was finished, at odds with the studio over how he saw it, is really something of a disappointment to me but like a lot of Edna Ferber adaptations, there are good things in the first half when Mann is most in his element). It’s true, he didn’t find his main current in the genre until he made WINCHESTER ’73 with James Stewart and even there, as you indicate of the 1950 films (though it is least true there), the film noir inflections remain somewhat, though I would say only stylistically–they are emphatically Westerns.
I love Niven Busch and love his contribution to the Western–Greek tragedy, Freudian psychology, a heavy dose of melodrama–these things came at the right time and helped to deepen the genre as it came into its best period. It might be pointed out too that of the three famous ones with which he is associated, only PURSUED is actually his own screenplay. DUEL IN THE SUN was based on his script (I actually have this original version and keep meaning to read it) but much changed by producer David O. Selznick, so much that Selznick is solely credited for the screenplay in the realized film. THE FURIES is based on Busch’s novel (need to get the Criterion and read this too) but screenplay is by Charles Schnee, superb screenwriter in his own right as anyone will see if they glance over his credits.
Where does THE FURIES miss, for all its many considerable virtues? I believe it is simply in story construction which Mann rightfully follows in building the film up the big scene with the Herreras, Gilbert Roland’s final one. That’s a great scene and Stanwyck’s reaction to what her father Huston does to Roland is riveting and one of the actress’ greatest moments. But something is gone after that scene and yet the movie goes on for quite awhile, never completely gathering dramatic force again. That father and daughter would follow suppressed incestuous path from love and devotion to bitterness and hate is the logical course, but what happens around this, even if it makes sense psychologically, doesn’t always work (though the scissors scene definitely does!). What doesn’t for me is intimated in your piece–there is a relative weakness to Corey’s character and the way it’s done (he is an actor I normally like) and with Roland gone, one begins to feel this weakness more. It makes sense when Juan tells Vance “the kiss of a good friend”–he is a man as strong as her father, and she just can’t let herself be in love with the man who can logically complete with T.C. But that complicates for me my response to her relationship with Rip–I can never quite buy it, even allowing for the narrative complexity around his motives and her attraction to him. So, as T.C. leaves the canvas, we are left with this kind of unconvincing couple.
Maybe the movie just puts out a little more than it can effectively deal with, yet that’s not such a bad flaw and for most of its length it’s dramatically absorbing and always visually striking as one expects with this director.
Hi Blake. I think you’re spot on that the structure of the movie works against it and it’s very hard to recapture the intensity achieved during and immediately after the showdown at the Herrera place. The story does peak at that point, but there’s really no way round that, and it hurts the long third act.
Normally, I like Corey too – and he starred more successfully on other occasions with Stanwyck – but even though the romance or passion between his character and Stanwyck’s is emphasised and given centre stage as the story progresses there’s no real chemistry there.
I feel The Furies is a movie with a lot of good stuff present (too much maybe, as you suggest), yet you can’t help measuring it against Mann’s other western output and the result is it does come up a little lacking overall.
I’d say we’re pretty much in agreement on the strengths and weaknesses of this one. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
This is one of my favorite Stawyck movies and I hope your excellent review will encourage many more to watch it or rewatch it.
Cheers for that. The role was pretty much tailor-made for Stanwyck and especially the post-war persona that she developed.
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Another one I need to take in sometime. I like the cast etc but just never get around to it. Nice write-up.
Very melodramatic and beautifully shot, it remains a highly distinctive western. It’s great that it’s a lot easier to see these days than was once the case.
Hi, Colin – I saw this movie on cable a few weeks ago and was immensely impressed with it. There was much to love about it. As usual after seeing a good classic movie, I checked your site to see what you had to say about it. And there it was: another knowledgeable, thoughtful, balanced review which enriches the reader’s appreciation of the film in question. I’m always chuffed when you like the same things about a movie that I do, but your comments always prompt me to think more deeply. I’ve ordered the Criterion edition on the strength of your comments. Very best wishes. Steve
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That’s all great to hear, Steve. This film still doesn’t get talked about all that much for some reason. I hope you’ll be pleased with the Criterion edition, it’s a nicely presented package.
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