[24 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Director Anthony Mann’s exciting 1950 classic The Furies, which is referred to, appropriately, as a “Freudian Western”, has finally been delivered to DVD by Criterion, in an expectedly gorgeous, brusque, black and white fashion.
Walter Huston (father of director John, grandfather of actress Anjelica), in his final performance, is the widowed T.C. Jeffords, who presides over his sprawling, coveted cattle ranch with an iron fist. It’s the 1870s and T.C.‘s ranch, the titular “Furies”, inspires envy throughout the New Mexico territory. His daughter Vance (the magnificently feline Barbara Stanwyck) bides her time as she chooses a husband, for her dowry and the very inheritance of the ranch hinge on her making the proper choice.
When we first meet Vance, she is twirling about in her dead mother’s bedroom, which has been declared off limits by T.C. Vance has decided to try on a gown and diamonds from the woman’s collection, allegedly, for her brother’s wedding, but it seems more like she is trying on these outfits to provoke a reaction from her father, who is on his way from San Francisco. Does she want her father to be outraged at her antics or does she want him to find her sexually attractive? The answer is yes to both. Her brother warns her against making their father angry, as Vance absent-mindedly fiddles with a giant, shiny pair of scissors and stares at herself in the mirror.
As T.C. arrives, the tension is cut when he is, in fact, thrilled to find his daughter wearing his dead wife’s clothing. The scenes between Huston and Stanwyck in the opening minutes of The Furies crackle with complicated incestuous energy; they are alive with hate and love in equal measure. We see that Vance has some Daddy issues that need to be seriously worked on.
What sets this film apart from other Western genre pics of the time is the stark, almost dream-like imagery and the slashing psychological tension applied by director Mann and screenwriter Charles Schnee. Film critic Robin Wood, in an essay packaged with the film calls the film a “hybrid – part western, part woman’s melodrama, part excursion into Freudian psychoanalytic material that must have posed problems for the ever-alert sensors.” Mann’s background prior to his 1950 trifecta (The Furies, Winchester ‘73 and Devil’s Doorway) was in B-movie film noirs, which is precisely this sort of hybridism and multifaceted ness that sets this movie apart from two other Mann westerns released in the same year.
Adapted from Niven Busch’s novel by Schnee, The Furies isn’t as hallucinatory or high-octane as the previous Busch-written camp fest Duel in the Sun, but it is often just as operatically stylized and tragic, not to mention tremendously entertaining and satisfying. Rather than cast the concept of “character” aside, as many Westerns tend to, the writers’ skillful portrait of this community contains shades of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, as well as elements that link it to the Greek “Furies” (or Eryines) myth.
Mann, who throughout his career was drawn to the Bard, also scatters fragments of Shakespeare’s King Lear into the mix (Vance is part Cordelia, part Goneril), along with the familial clinches of Eugene O’Neill’s dour compositions. One can’t also help but think Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will be Blood was influenced, at least on a subliminal level, by this sweepingly visual re-imagining of the genre.
In keeping with standard they have been shattering consistently for the last year, with each new batch of films getting better and better, Criterion succeeds in choosing another exemplary, essential title to add to their collection, and also in being the leader in DVD packaging and supplemental materials. This is a cineaste’s wonderland. We have a rare on-camera interview with the towering Walter Huston from 1931; French director Claude Chabrol interviewing Mann; a stunning high-definition transfer; and the novel from which the film was born. All of the extras materials point to the bravery of Stanwyck’s performance and the incendiary, original nature of her character.
As Vance sets off to wrest the power from T.C.’s filthy hands and become a true land baroness, she, in effect, begins a war in which factions are formed throughout the settlement and the really brutal treachery begins. The deceptively friendly social climber Flo Burnett (Dame Judith Anderson, in a smart turn) tells her point blank that she is marrying the woman’s Daddy for his money and power. And she intends to redecorate her mother’s bedroom and while sending Vance off to Europe as well. Alas, she says, Vance will always be welcome at The Furies when she is the mistress of the house. Probably not the wisest thing to prattle on about when Vance is within grabbing distance of those brightly gleaming shears. Flo’s bluntness sends the feral Vance into a blind rage, no pun intended.
Vance is another jewel in the toughly sweet Stanwyck’s crown. Though she played an invalid right before this in Sorry, Wrong Number (for which she received her final Oscar nomination), Stanwyck wasn’t exactly a dainty little thing. In a time where men ruled both noir and the western, Stanwyck carved a niche for herself in both types of films, playing tough women of action, mirroring her own private life, much of which was spent on her beloved ranch
She was a powerful woman, in film and in real life, who explored, took risks and cut a strong, dashing figure alongside the gaggles of men she typically was surrounded by in her films.
Wood calls her characterization here “Cordelia and Goneril combined into one, simultaneously supporting and insidiously exploiting him, sincere yet treacherous, a woman in love with her father but also who covets the power that women have been traditionally denied,” which had to have been the attraction for a huge star such as Stanwyck to have taken the part in the first place. This is a role, and a film, that intends to manipulate (and even eliminate) the conventional practices of the genre, in a deliriously overwrought manor.
The real let down comes in the final 20 minutes, where the direction, and screenplay undo all of Stanwyck’s bold work and romanticize her near-mythological, claws-out character by having her do a complete 180 and become simply “the girl” of the piece who wants nothing more than to settle down and be married.