May 28, 2021
By Stephen Danay
Anthony Mann’s seminal run of Westerns through the early to mid-1950s were characterized by wide Technicolor vistas and regretful protagonists – often played by Jimmy Stewart – seeking revenge or attempting to right past wrongs. Mann’s legacy was cemented by his work in the Western genre, but he got his start in the 1940s directing low-budget noirs like T-Men, He Walked By Night and Raw Deal. The overlap between noir as a form and western as a genre may not seem immediately obvious, but Mann’s work in the early days of the 1950s show’s that the Venn diagram is closer to a circle than one would think. Films like Winchester ’73, Border Incident and The Furies show that stark black-and-white cinematography, grim fatalism and protagonists doomed by their own hubris were just as at home in the deserts and plains of the west as they were in the alleys and side streets of the east.
The Furies, adapted from a 1948 Niven Busch novel of the same name, draws on centuries worth of narrative precedences. Walter Huston’s performance as land baron T.C. Jeffords – his final screen appearance – a fading ruler with an ambitious daughter, evokes Shakespeare’s Lear. As his scheming, prideful daughter, Barbara Stanwyck’s Vance Jeffords recalls Electra – she resents her father’s dominance but also can’t stand to see his attention given to other women. She’s is also unable to commit to a romantic partner, using her father as an impossible standard of male strength that no other man can live up to.
Stanwyck spent much of her career playing tough, wild women who yearned for romantic love while also resenting being dominated by a male partner. Vance Jeffords is possibly the ultimate expression of the archetype that Stanwyck defined over her long career. Torn between her childhood friend, a revolutionary Mexican farmer played by Gilbert Roland and a cutthroat gambler with the hilarious moniker Rip Darrow, her self expression is continuously defined and undercut by the men in her life. Each man represents a separate path to self-actualization. Her father’s approval is her familial birthright; Roland’s Juan Herrera represents the just struggle for the rights of poor farmers being driven from her father’s land. And Darrow – played by a not particularly compelling Wendell Corey – represents victory by way of ruthless zero-sum attrition.
Mann and cinematographer Victor Milner succeed handily in bringing the grey loneliness of urban noir to the vast windswept landscape of The Furies, the titular ranch owned by T.C. Jeffords. An endless sprawl of scrubland and rock formations, the vast expanse of New Mexico takes on an even greater sense of emptiness when shot in black and white. Sunset, dawn or midday, it’s always grey at The Furies. Similarly, the enormous ranch house where much of the drama unfolds is shot like a medieval castle, full of silent servants and enormous staircases. A monument to vanity amid the unforgiving natural landscape. As metaphors go, it’s not subtle, but it works.
Criterion’s Blu-ray re-release of The Furies includes numerous extras, including a copy of the original novel upon which it was based.