Monday, June 23, 2008

The Furies: not quite as hysterical as the French would have it, but one hell of a sexy, violent, transgressive western melodrama nonetheless

The Furies, one of three westerns directed by Anthony Mann in 1950 following his triumphant string of dazzling noir thrillers, would have to be considered an exceptional movie in any genre. Set in the 1870s, it’s an epic drama about a charismatic, tyrannical widower lording over a vast New Mexico ranch, an impotent son to which he’s indifferent, and a bold, self-determined daughter whose role is uncomfortably close to that of a wife. It’s also a story about deception, sexual dominance and, as the plot would have it, good and bad bookkeeping.

At the film’s dramatic centre is a formidable woman, played by the singular Barbara Stanwyck, grappling fiercely for control of an enormous piece of property and a legacy even larger. Along its periphery are secret love affairs with Mexicans squatters, ghosts of a vanishing frontier, vestiges of colonial chaos, and long-simmering tensions that find release only in unbridled explosions of violence. It’s a marvelous, complex, perverse, horrifying—there are strong does of mutilation and humiliation—and often touching movie that, for all the issues it fails to fully resolve, should be regarded as something very near greatness.

T.C. Jeffords was Walter Huston’s final role. He brings to the aging patriarch an ingratiating blustery swagger that delicately functions as a beard for bone-deep insecurities. Owner of the film’s titular ranch but chronically foolish with money, he’s one three men to be kept, controlled or conquered by his daughter Vance (Stanwyck), the only thing standing between the Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) family and homelessness, between T.C. and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), the gambler-turned-banker whose family are the rightful owners of a strip of The Furies and whose father was killed by T.C. long ago. All of these men, in one way or another, are Vance’s lovers. “I’ve always worked my own leather,” boasts Vance, who the adoring T.C. dubs a “she-fox,” who publicly taunts her father’s authority, staking claims on what’s otherwise deemed a man’s domain. When T.C. brings home a woman (a wonderful Judith Anderson) who threatens to replace Vance as matriarch—and true controller—of The Furies, Vance unleashes her wrath, suffers the consequences, and promises to tear everything away from her father.

Among the pleasures of The Furies is watching how Stanwyck and Mann collaborate, resulting in a performance simultaneously seductive and frightening. Locking eyes with each of her male opponents, Stanwyck uses that weirdly amphibian gaze of hers like some Medusa with a perm, and tosses off a peppering of sharpened jabs with her distinctive deadpan. Yet she also conveys such heights of desire and rage, and Mann frames her performance brilliantly in the film’s signature scene of sadistic violence. Mirrors, conventionally symbols of feminine vanity, here become the visual birthplace of female oppression and injury. Stanwyck’s groping for her dead mother’s scissors as her rival gloats before her makes for a majestic moment of unease.

Mann himself, traditionally deemed above all a genre craftsman, has recently been the subject of a call for reconsideration from critics who think he deserves to be elevated to auteur status. (For a strong example, see Richard Combs' piece on Mann in the May/June 2007 issue of Film Comment.) Over the past year or so, without actually trying to, I’ve wound up watching a lot of Mann films—like Raw Deal (48), Border Incident (49), a work that in its way bridges noir and western traditions, and The Naked Spur (53)—and am now more than happy to jump on this critical bandwagon, the latest driver of which is The Criterion Collection, who, with The Furies, now add his name to their list of distinguished featured filmmakers.

I’m sure some readers must wonder why I give so much ink to Criterion releases, but a quick survey of their new package for The Furies pretty much speaks for itself: besides the customarily superb transfer, they offer a beautifully illustrated box, a book featuring a smart essay and archival interview with Mann, DVD supplements like a vintage interview with Huston, a new interview with Mann’s daughter, and a surprisingly good British television interview with Mann from the 60s. And, get this, you also get a handsomely bound paperback edition of Niven Busch’s source novel. They actually give you the damned book!

My favourite extra here though would have to be the audio commentary from historian and western specialist Jim Kitses. I saw him give a talk about
Ride the High Country (62) a while back and was deeply impressed by his arguments for ever-closer readings of Sam Peckinpah's work and of westerns as a platform for every conceivable sort of human drama. I also really like his big moustache. Regarding The Furies, he laments the diminished role of Juan and the other Mexicans in Charles Schnee’s adaptation while praising the film’s other transgressive elements, emphasizes the hints of incest between Vance and T.C., directs our attention to the films’ multi-generic threads, and makes a strong case for the western as the genre that best suited Mann’s obsessive interest in familial conflict.

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