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The Furies

The Furies(1950)

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Now on DVD from The Criterion Collection, The Furies (1950) is one of the few movies in Hollywood history that can truly be called a "noir western," though in truth it also carries strong elements of other genres: the melodrama, romance and epic. But then, as film historian Jim Kitses points out on his commentary track, "it diminishes the film's richness to pin it down narrowly." That's very true. The Furies has so much going for it - deep characters, complicated relationships, sumptuous images, powerhouse performances - why not throw a few genres into the mix?

Amazingly enough, The Furies is one of three movies directed by Anthony Mann to be released in the single year of 1950. The others are Devil's Doorway and Winchester '73, both also excellent. Along with Devil's Doorway, The Furies may be seen as a key transitional film in Mann's impressive career; it's a movie that bridges his film noir work of the 1940s with the westerns that would follow in the 1950s. There's plenty of western landscape in The Furies, but it's mostly seen in quite dark, high-contrast imagery, enabling Mann to create noir-like feelings of claustrophobia even in wide-open spaces. As in film noir, the blackness of the night feels oppressive.

That feeling is appropriate to the dark, serious drama of the story, which, as the title implies, carries overtones of classical tragedy. Much has been made of Mann's long-term desire to film King Lear, and while he never did, this is one of his films which at least approaches Lear's story and emotions. (The Man From Laramie [1955] and Man of the West [1958] are others.)

The Furies is a powerful yarn based on a novel by Niven Busch. Walter Huston plays T.C. Jeffords, a patriarchal ranch owner with two kids, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) and Clay (John Bromfield). Vance is by far the stronger of the two, and her relationship with her father is so close that incest is strongly hinted. T.C.'s wife is dead, and her room is kept in immaculate shape; the film opens with Vance in the room trying on her mother's dress, immediately establishing the psychological weirdness going on. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that Vance's relationship with T.C. is actually love-hate, full of intense power struggles and rivalry. T.C. doesn't like his daughter's choice of suitor (Wendell Corey); Vance hates her father's new lover and eventual bride (Judith Anderson, in a brilliantly subtle performance).

Adding to the complexity is a platonic relationship between Vance and a Mexican squatter (Gilbert Roland) whom she's known since childhood. For Roland, however, the feelings are romantic. When T.C. orders Roland's death, Vance departs in a blaze of fury, vowing to get her revenge and ruin her father's life, in a series of actions which make up the final act of the picture.

The intensity of the story is matched by the powerful, epic-sized acting. Stanwyck and Huston are simply fantastic together. This was Huston's final film, and sadly he died before its release and never got to see the finished product. No one who watches The Furies will soon forget Huston's booming voice or the way he commands the frame. By the end of the film, our view of the domineering T.C. has shifted to one that is sympathetically Lear-like. As good as he is, however, it's really Stanwyck's movie. Her no-nonsense character suits her perfectly, and she is asked to - and delivers - a wide range of emotion, from hell-bent anger to vulnerability. (And no one could better say, "I don't think I like being in love. It puts a bit in my mouth.")

Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Furies is how controlled Mann keeps things. He doesn't allow the movie to deteriorate into shrillness, which easily could have happened. After all, the novelist Niven Busch also wrote the source material for Duel in the Sun (1946), as overwrought and overblown a western as has ever been made. On paper, the plotline of The Furies is indeed over the top, but Mann's directing skills keep the movie from feeling that way. Perhaps this is because he is so good at finding visual ways of expressing the tension - so that the way we feel the tension comes more from the image than from the dialogue.

Also deserving of a mention are the great, pulsing score by Franz Waxman and the brief appearance of Beulah Bondi in a supporting role. She doesn't get much screen time, but her scene with Stanwyck is one of the best in the entire movie.

Criterion's DVD is exemplary. Victor Milner's cinematography is beautifully transferred, and it's easy to see why he was Oscar-nominated for Best B&W Cinematography. (He lost to Robert Krasker for The Third Man.) Criterion has slightly picture-boxed the image. Jim Kitses' audio commentary is somewhat drily delivered, but he is smart and has many interesting things to say. Kitses was one of the first American scholars of Mann's work, and those interested in Mann would do well to give this a listen.

Also on the disc is a 1931 episode of "Intimate Interviews," a series of short films in which interviewer Dorothy West visited movie stars at their homes and interviewed them in a staged/acted manner. This episode features Walter Huston, who is charming, playful and flirtatious.

Of much greater interest is a 17-minute interview with Anthony Mann, filmed in 1967 for a British TV show called The Movies. Mann was in London at the time shooting his final picture, A Dandy in Aspic (1968), which he never completed. He died of a heart attack not long after this interview, and actor Laurence Harvey completed that film. It's fascinating to listen to Mann talk about his work and techniques. He comes off as intense and as passionate as his movies themselves. In speaking of the power of the film image, for instance, he says: "What you see is the only truth. And if you can make it all about what the audience sees, as real and as truthful, you don't have to say things."

Other extras include a trailer, stills galleries, an interview with Mann's daughter Nina, a fine essay by film historian Robin Wood (in which he points out that The Furies is one of Mann's very few films to center on a woman), a 1957 Cahiers Du Cinema interview with Mann, and even a printing of Niven Busch's novel.

For more information about The Furies, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Furies, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold