The Furies

Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch)
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck (Vance Jeffords), Wendell Corey (Rip Darrow), Walter Huston (T.C. Jeffords), Judith Anderson (Flo Burnett), Gilbert Roland (Juan Herrera), Thomas Gomez (El Tigre), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Anaheim), Albert Dekker (Mr. Reynolds), John Bromfield (Clay Jeffords), Wallace Ford (Scotty Hyslip), Blanche Yurka (Herrera Mother), Louis Jean Heydt (Bailey), Frank Ferguson (Dr. Grieve)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1950
Country: U.S.
The Furies
The FuriesLong overshadowed by Winchester ’73, which was released the same year and marked the beginning of the extensive relationship between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart, The Furies has frequently been neglected in histories of the western, particularly the role it played in deepening the genre’s psychological roots. Simultaneously a western and a domestic melodrama, The Furies is an ambitious dive into the murky headwaters of familial turmoil, mixing Freudian tension and Shakespearean grandeur, all of which is shot through with an air of film noir that makes the nights seem that much darker and the conflicts that much more perverse.

Based on a novel by Niven Busch, who also wrote the novel on which King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1947) was based, The Furies takes its title from the fictional New Mexico ranch owned by the boisterously egotistic T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston). The ranch and the man are essentially one in the same--both larger than life, sprawling, inimitably proud. Jefford’s adult daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), runs the ranch for him and aspires to own it one day, which marks her as a unique character in the western genre: a forthright, ambitious, and ultimately cunning woman who cuts her way through the traditionally masculine genre material and makes it her own. It’s so rare for a western to be centered around a female character, and Stanwyck all but owns the film with her unique brand of sharp-eyed intensity and feminine wiles, although at several points she also displays a profound vulnerability that keeps her character sympathetic even when she is stewing in her own hatred.

The story is structured around several central tensions, the biggest being the relationship between Vance and T.C., which borders so obviously on the incestuous that it’s a wonder the Production Code Administration ever let this project get past the script stage. The film’s obsession with the Electra complex is established in the opening scene in which Vance puts on her dead mother’s dress and jewels and meets T.C. on his return home, kissing him fully on the mouth and looking up at him with a mixture of adoration and pride. “I like being T.C.’s daughter,” she proclaims at one point, but her libidinal attraction to T.C. is so overt that it seems more apt for her to say “I want to be T.C.’s wife.” This is ferociously driven home when T.C. later brings home a potential wife, the willfully aristocratic Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), who proceeds to take Vance’s place as both her father’s number one girl and the head of the ranch (remember--the man and the ranch are one in the same).

This is not to say that Vance does not pursue other romantic options. The first third of the film focuses on her relationship with Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a local businessman and gambler whom her father detests, which makes him all the more appealing. Rip is as self-centered and fiercely independent as T.C., which is perhaps what Vance loves about him, and when he ultimately rejects her, it sends her that much deeper into the heart of The Furies. Vance also has another potential lover in Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), the son of a group of Mexicans who have been “squatting” on T.C.’s land, claiming that it has been theirs for generations. Like Rip, Juan is an “unsuitable” suitor for Vance, this time because of his race, yet he is clearly the most decent and sympathetic character in the film.

As a story, The Furies moves along broad strokes of love and hate; there is little subtlety in the characters’ ambitions, desires, and feelings toward one another. Veteran cinematographer Victor Milner, a favorite of Preston Sturges, brings a dark, almost horrific look to the film’s landscapes, as well as the interior of the Jeffords home, whose rough-hewn stones and massive portraits are right out of a gothic romance (it’s appropriate that that the film was shot in black and white rather than Technicolor, which was becoming the standard practice for A-level studio westerns at the time). The film’s stylized look matches its psychological ambitions, even if the latter sometimes spin a bit too wildly. The performances by Stanwyck and Huston are crucial in this regard, as the two veterans (this would, sadly, be Huston’s last performance before his death) make their characters instantly memorable and believable, even when required to be histrionic or hammy.

Director Anthony Mann, who made his name in the 1950s with a series of psychologically dense westerns, was initially trained in the theater before moving to Hollywood, where he got his start directing various B-movies before first gaining notice with the celebrated films noir T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948). In The Furies we can see all of these influences coming together as Mann helped forge a new kind of film, one that used the well-worn conventions of the western to dig at the underbelly of the human psyche. It was well known that Mann had always wanted to make a westernized version of King Lear, and some critics suggest that The Furies is the closest he ever came. The Shakespearean dimensions of the story are obvious, and as a whole it matches well with the Bard’s outsized view of human nature, even if it stumbles near the end in trying to enforce a conclusion that is simultaneously tragic and happy, but most of all redemptive. This is, by all measures, a story that probably should have ended with every character in the ground because the idea of any of them finding happiness after all they’ve been through is a pill that’s a little too hard to swallow.

The Furies Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film historian Jim Kitses
  • “Action Speaks Louder than Words,” 1967 television interview with Anthony Mann
  • 1931 on-camera interview with Walter Huston
  • Video interview with Nina Mann
  • Stills gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New printing of Niven Busch’s original novel
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Robin Wood and a 1957 Cahiers du cinéma interview with Mann
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 24, 2008

    For its DVD debut, Criterion has come up with a beautiful high-definition transfer of The Furies, taken from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and digitally restored to remove virtually any signs that this film is nearing 60 years in age. The image is clear, and well-detailed, if just a bit soft at times, with excellent contrast that brings out all the nuances of the set design and the glorious southwestern landscapes. Some of the night scenes may seem a bit dark, but this is clearly the intended look of the film, given its indebtedness to the style of film noir. (The only real complaint is that the 1.33:1 image is slightly windowboxed, a practice many were hoping Criterion would drop, but apparently haven’t.) The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print track, sounds great. Dialogue is clear throughout, and Franz Waxman’s musical score sounds appropriately majestic and soaring.
    Criterion has packed a nice array of supplements into this single-disc edition, starting with film historian Jim Kitses’s insightful and informative audio commentary, which goes into great detail about the film’s production, the people associated with it, and how it fits into the western genre. Director Anthony Mann appears in an 18-minute interview for the British television series The Movies recorded in 1967 while he was in production on what would turn out to be his last film, A Dandy in Aspic. The low regard in which The Furies was held during his lifetime is reflected in the fact that Mann is never asked about the film. However, it is discussed in-depth in a new 17-minute video interview with his daughter, Nina Mann, who discusses her father’s life and how it affected his films. The disc is rounded out with a rare and rather humorous 1931 on-camera interview with Walter Huston, which was made for Intimate Interviews, a series that played in movie theaters; a gallery of 20 behind-the-scenes photos; and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features a new essay by critic Robin Wood and a 1957 Cahiers du cinéma interview with Mann. And, finally, as they have done with several other DVD releases, including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Short Cuts (1993), Criterion has packaged The Furies with a special reprinting of Niven Busch’s source novel, which is a real treat given that it has been out of print for decades.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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