Friday, July 17, 2009


Over at Goodfella's Movie Blog there's an inexorable march in progress through the talkie era as Dave names his favorites for each year and takes all comers with other picks and lists. It's great sport for people with lots of movie experience, and Dave makes an eloquent case for his choice every time. 1950 came up on Thursday (Dave named All About Eve), so that was an excuse to crack open a Criterion DVD that I'd picked up at a Borders going-out-of-business sale last year. Why it took so long to look at Anthony Mann's other western from 1950 I can't say, except to point to the constant distractions that show up on the Albany Public Library's DVD shelves.

For those wondering what I mean by "other western," 1950 was the year of Mann's big breakthrough film, Winchester 73. That was the film that signaled the darker turn that would make James Stewart one of the top actors of the 1950s, often directed by Mann in grim westerns like The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie. Winchester is also one of the early "adult" or "psychological" westerns, as the genre is called that looks beyond the white and black hats to discover conflicted heroes and complex villains. Another frequently-used label that's actually more specialized is "Freudian western," and The Furies is one of these.

The Freudian Western adds a level of sexual obsession to the adult-western template, dating back to David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun from 1947. Duel was based on a novel by Niven Busch, and The Furies was another of his novels, picked up by Paramount-affiliated producer Hal Wallis for direction by Mann. Criterion has reprinted the novel for inclusion in a neat little box with the movie. I haven't read it yet, but I did open it to answer a question that occurred to me almost immediately as I watched the film.

"The Furies" is a giant cattle ranch owned by T. C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a mighty man of the old school who spends much of his time spending his money in the fleshpots of San Francisco. When I say his money, that sometimes means "his" money. He somehow has the right to print promissory notes called T.C.s that are accepted as legal tender, albeit with increasing reluctance, when he runs up debts.

T.C. has two children that we know of. The son, Clay, is an ineffectual, nearly effeminate fellow who is nevertheless getting married as our story opens. The true heir apparent to The Furies, however, is the daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). She runs things in T. C.'s absence, gripes about his expenses, and busts his balls when he's home, but theirs is a very affectionate relationship. He trusts her to massage his sixth lumbar vertebrae, and there's something disquietingly intimate about their interaction that's only accentuated by Franz Waxman's suggestive music. Vance is headstrong, competent, yet virginal and naive in sexual matters. This seems inconsistent with the plain fact of Barbara Stanwyck on the screen. Few of her peers in Classic Hollywood exude the raw power that she does, and that's sexual power along with everything else. But there's something about Vance that makes Stanwyck seem inappropriate for the role, though I suppose that only emerges because she has the character nailed as far as acting is concerned. What I had to check in the novel was Vance's age. Stanwyck was 43 when she played the role. In the book, Vance is nineteen. To be fair, I don't know if the movie means her to be nineteen, and Stanwyck's age is arguably appropriate relative to Huston's. Also, I don't know if a more age-appropriate actress could have brought the necessary power that Stanwyck does.

Father and daughter bust one another's chops and always seem to be maneuvering for advantage over each other, but they clearly love one another until others enter their orbit. She already has a perhaps more-than-friendly relationship with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), scion of a local squatter clan, but she seems suddenly to be more serious about Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a questionable character whose family lost a valuable strip of land to T.C. and bequeathed a grudge to their boy. Vance wants to get T.C.'s goat by going with an enemy, while T.C. is determined to show her that Rip is a scumbag. It takes $50,000 to prove it, which is what he offers Rip to walk away from Vance. Rip accepts, taking it as compensation for the loss of his family's land and using it to start his own bank. Vance, who has been repeatedly stood up, not to mention slapped around (in some convincingly rough scenes) by this creep, is heartbroken, confiding her sorrows and lingering feelings for Rip to Juan.

If this film were to be remade today, I suspect that Vance would end up with Juan, who seems like too good a guy to pass up. But there's increasing pressure on the Jeffords clan to drive out all squatters, who are a "cloud" over the land in the eyes of the bankers from whom T.C. wants a new mortgage. For the moment, Vance's affection for Juan earns the Herreras a breather while T.C. and his right hand goon El Tigre (Thomas Gomez) burn out the other squatters.

Anthony Mann's deep-focus style is also suited for illustrating height, as in this scene in which Vance (on horseback at the right bottom of the screen) hails Juan, standing atop the Herrera fortress.

Things fall apart when T.C. brings a new, older woman home from his latest jaunt in Frisco. This is Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), a self-confessed fortune hunter who encourages her beau to pack Vance off for a long European tour while she settles in at The Furies. Vance's anxiety at the alienation of her father's affections seems more than childish, though it does seem very much like a childish outburst when she hurls a good-sized pair of scissors at Flo's face when she learns that T.C. is going to marry her. Enraged, T.C. adopts the tit-for-tat principle and decides to level the Herrera's hilltop fortress, defying a rain of boulders and bullets to hurl dynamite at its foundations. Juan's mother has quite the bloodlust for T.C., but for Vance's sake Juan urges her to stand down and his family to quit the ranch. Unfortunately for Juan, T.C. discovers that he's riding a horse with a Furies brand and has him hanged for rustling on the spot. There's a moral intended for Vance in this: it's not nice to see someone you love hurt. But the analogy fails once Juan is swinging in the wind, and it's Vance who's determined to teach T.C. a lesson by destroying him.

The stage is set for an epic war between father and daughter, but it's at this point that the movie begins to fall apart. Vance's revenge requires her to travel the country buying up all the T.C. notes her father has spread around, and this removes Stanwyck from the explosive proximity to Huston that fueled the first half of the film. The film's early power came from them playing off each other, so isolating them dilutes the drama, especially when Vance's revenge scheme proves more elaborate than it needs to be. Worse, it involves her teaming up with the once-despised Rip Darrow, who now softens as he perceives a newly maturing Vance. Wendell Corey had been so convincing as a dirtbag early in the picture that his emergence as the true romantic lead was completely unconvincing. Even less convincing is the spirit of reconciliation that descends (despite a violent interruption by the Herreras) after a digressive cattle drive that seems included only to demonstrate T.C.'s mightiness in steer rassling and showcase a song about his prowess with whips. Not having read the novel, I can't say whether this decline is faithful to the story or a case of Hollywood coming down in favor of matrimony and domesticity. Either way, it's not what I'd been led to expect from the appropriately furious emotions displayed by Stanwyck and Huston.

None of the above takes away from the pure visual quality of Mann's direction. He had mastered deep-focus composition so that there's always a dramatic balance between foreground and background in his shots. He's as great in his outdoor scenes as anyone familiar with his other westerns would expect, especially during the sequences at the Herrera fortress. But he also makes outstanding use of some impressive sets for the Jeffords house. One such scene stands out: Vance and Flo are arguing in what was once Vance's mother's room. Vance stands by a mirror, in which we see Flo sitting in a chair. We see her rise and walk, and while we hear her talking we first see her in another mirror just behind Vance, then finally in person, entering from the left to face Vance. Mann uses the mirrors to impose a dramatic pace on Anderson's movements that steadily builds up tension. He puts the mirrors to further good use while setting up Stanwyck's scissors attack.

In short, this is a film that's definitely worth looking at despite its story shortcomings. I recommend it to fans of Stanwyck, as this is (I think) the first manifestation of her western-matriarch persona that received its apotheosis on The Big Valley. Anyone who appreciates Walter Huston should also check out his career-closing performance here, in which he shows a vigor that belies the nearness of his demise. The Furies has the makings of a classic, and probably still qualifies as a flawed one.

Here's the trailer, uploaded by ClassicMovieTrailers:


Dave (Goodfelladh) said...

Samuel - A fantastic review, and thanks for the shout-out on the Countdown! I think that your review is basically spot on. I can't disagree with your assessment of the film in regards to the first two-thirds being far superior to the conclusion. I wouldn't quite go so far as to say that it "falls apart," but it certainly loses much of the steam that was built up in the early stages. Still, I think the build up is just so good that I'm able to overlook the shortcomings of the finale. I still think it is my favorite Mann western.

In regards to Mann himself, you're right about how spectacular this film looks. The darkness of the exterior shots has stuck with since the first time I saw it.

Sam Juliano said...

"He had mastered deep-focus composition so that there's always a dramatic balance between foreground and background in his shots. He's as great in his outdoor scenes as anyone familiar with his other westerns would expect, especially during the sequences at the Herrera fortress."

Ah, when Border's closed many of its stores and the DVD departments it did leave some of the most restless among us few over-the-counter options.

As a collector of all Criterion releases I was most eager to get this film, and while I may not quite rate it as highly as you do, I can well understand, respect and applaud your point-of-view here. The quote above is an example of how perceptively you have evaluated and deliniated this film. My two favorites of Mann are THE NAKED SPUR and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, but this "Fraudian western" is certainly worthy of some acknowledgement.

There are narrative shortcoming sin this film (which you do admit) and there si also a superlative score by the great Franz Waxman.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I hope you have a Barnes & Noble near you so you can take advantage of that 50% discount sale on Criterions. I've been running amok at my local store since I got the e-mail.

Dave, I may exaggerate the extent to which The Furies falls apart, but that's because it failed to go in the way I expected, and not in the way of a pleasant or plausible surprise. But I'd agree that the first half is so wild that it makes the last third or so worth enduring.

Sam Juliano said...

Samuel, I wasn't even aware of that sale!!! will look into it immediately!!! There are a number of the most recent releases I need to acquite. Thanks!

John said...

Samuel -excellent review. I admire this film very muuch and being a Stanwyck fan made it an extra pleasure. The compostion in this film is staggering,as is the lighting and for me the film ranks up there with Mann's other westerns.The relationship between father and daughter did make me a bit unsettled at times. As Sam mentions the score by Waxman is exceptional.