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DVD SAVANT

The Furies


The Furies
Criterion 435
1950 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 109 min. / Street Date June 24, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Thomas Gomez, Beulah Bondi, Albert Dekker, John Bromfield, Wallace Ford, Blanche Yurka.
Cinematography
Victor Milner
Art Direction Henry Bumstead
Film Editor Archie Marshek
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Charles Schnee from the novel by Niven Busch
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Anthony Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Anthony Mann has been receiving a lot of visibility in the DVD world lately, with the disc release of his grandiose 60's epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. The ambitious Mann had the misfortune to pass away just before film directors became the new cultural wonder men; although best known for his popular James Stewart movies (The Naked Spur, The Glenn Miller Story) the director had a yen for epics structured like classic theater. 1950's The Furies is the first of several Mann westerns that can be described as sagebrush versions of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Mann is one of several innovative post-war directors that specialized in tough genre pictures. The noirs T-Men and Raw Deal earned him a roost at MGM, and from there he fanned out to other studios making original and unusually violent action fare. 1950 saw the release of three very different Mann westerns. MGM's Devil's Doorway expressed the violent rage of a Native American, an ex- Union soldier who finds his people dispossessed of their human rights. The enormously successful Winchester '73 saw the beginning of Mann's long-term relationship with James Stewart. The Furies is Mann's first shot at a western on epic terms. The resulting look at American power and greed isn't entirely successful, but few movies good or bad dare half as much. The perverse family relationships here are every bit as twisted as The Sopranos. The film also marks a powerful final role for Walter Huston, who dominates with his grandstanding performance as rancher T.C. Jeffords.

Synopsis:

The despotic ruler of an enormous ranch called "The Furies", T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) lords it over his squatters and secures his finances by forcing his creditors to accept IOUs in the form of personalized currency he calls TeeCees. Jeffords ignores his son Clay (John Bromfield) but dotes on his willful daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), the only person who can call his bluff. The San Francisco bankers dogging Jeffords' ragged accounts insist that Jeffords evict all the squatters from his kingdom, including the Herreras, who have traditionally been granted access. Vance keeps company with the handsome Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) but knows that they have no future together; T.C.'s foreman El Tigre (Thomas Gomez) repeatedly offers to slaughter the entire Herrera clan. T.C. would prefer to impose a husband of his choosing on Vance, but she sets her cap for Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambling entrepreneur that her father despises. Vance's plans to inherit The Furies are quashed when T.C. announces his intention to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson). The clever widow intends to remove Vance from T.C.'s estate by packing her off to Europe.

Unique among westerns, The Furies is something of a shocker, what with the barely concealed incestuous relationship between Vance Jeffords and her father. A lot of happy back scratching goes on, and a mutual affection is present between the two even when they're at each other's throats. Watching the wild and wooly Walter Huston eat up the screen and most of his fellow actors is a thrill; he has as much fun roughing up his associates and dishing out colorful dialogue as does his Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster.

The film's high spirits shatter in a hanging scene as unjust as the lynching in The Ox-Bow Incident. Mexican-American squatters resist eviction until a truce is agreed upon to let them go if they stop fighting. Jeffords reneges on the deal by claiming that the head of the resisters is also a horse thief. Jeffords orders the man hung anyway -- fulfilling his desire to destroy any man who loves his daughter. The injustice becomes even more disturbing when Vance soon forgives and forgets her father's wanton act of personal revenge. That life can go on normally after such an atrocity seems a clear comment on American politics -- the rich and powerful are sometimes above the law.

The Furies is a definite slap in the face to idealized images of the west as an innocent place for new beginnings. T.C. Jeffords' west has all of the ugliness and corruption of the east, without the benefit of law and order. Jeffords kills with impunity and blackmails a banker (Albert Dekker) into extending a loan to keep his ranch going.

Many of the relationships in The Furies are mercenary, corrupt or perverse. Vance tries to pressure gambler Rip Darrow (Hal Wallis' contract star Wendell Corey) into marriage, only to see him accept T.C.'s bribe and walk out on her. "I do my own proposing," says Rip, repeatedly telling Vance to give up trying to control him. Jeffords' key henchmen are a weakling bookkeeper (Wallace Ford) and a trigger-happy foreman (Thomas Gomez) who may be an ex-outlaw, or even a war criminal.

Barbara Stanwyck was a familiar sight as feisty, can-do frontier women -- as Annie Oakley and in the big-ranch based westerns Forty Guns, and the TV series The Big Valley. Vance fails to protect the man who truly loves her and engages in a sexual competition with Rip, a man who won't be dominated. Curiously, Vance's worst enemy is another woman, Judith Anderson's Flo. The widow freely admits she's in it for the money, and T.C. will marry the clever Flo just to spite his daughter. Vance eventually resorts to underhanded financial manipulations to regain control of her inheritance. Vance and T.C.'s dispute takes a heavy toll on the people around them.

Proof that this is an Anthony Mann film comes when a scene is interrupted by unexpected violence involving a pair of sewing shears. Mann had a penchant for moments of grotesque brutality, and the scene is almost as shocking as the earlier hanging. Reviewers in 1950 found The Furies unpleasant, confusing, and visually too dark. This true western noir simmers with undigested moral upsets; the financial swindles involving Jeffords' TeeCees probably went over a lot of viewers' heads.

Barbara Stanwyck was never better in a role with many emotional extremes. Gilbert Roland is the rugged and romantic Juan Herrera, while Wendell Corey's cynical Rip Darrow is often blamed for the film's lack of sexual chemistry (the film is actually Stanwyck and Corey's second romantic pairing). Mann orchestrates his supporting players with ease, from the passive John Bromfield to Judith Anderson's shrewd widow, to Blanche Yurka as a wild-eyed Mexican matriarch. Beulah Bondi is memorable as the wife of a philandering banker. Future Marlon Brando wife Movita (Castañeda) of Mutiny on the Bounty has a good bit as the housemaid T.C. uses to compromise Albert Dekker's tinhorn banker.

Mann's image of the west as a Greek tragedy of power and folly seems a credible prehistory of modern times. The corrupt T.C. Jeffords' is the spiritual grandfather of 30's real estate swindler Noah Cross, the land baron played by John Huston in Polanski's Chinatown.


Criterion's deluxe DVD package of The Furies presents this Paramount film in pristine condition. Cameraman Victor Milner's impressions of moral darkness on the open range are appropriately moody. Criterion producer Curtis Tsui provides a rare interview with Anthony Mann filmed just before his unexpected death at age 61. Walter Huston appears in an amusing fake movie star interview featurette. The disc's higher cost is accounted for by the inclusion of a specially printed paperback edition of Niven Busch's original novel. The director's daughter Nina Mann appears in a new video interview, and a trailer and still gallery are included as well. The insert booklet contains a text essay by the esteemed critic Robin Wood, and a 1957 Mann interview conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol.

The most edifying extra is a full commentary by critic Jim Kitses, whose book Horizons West introduced many English-language readers to directors Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah. Kitses' highly organized talk balances academic concerns and the realities of the movie business to give a full appreciation of this strange, impressive movie.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Furies rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Jim Kitses, 1967 interview with Anthony Mann, 1931 'interview' featurette with Walter Huston, interview with Nina Mann, stills gallery, theatrical trailer, insert booklet with essay by Robin Wood and a Mann interview, PLUS a reprinting of Niven Busch's original novel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 14, 2008

Republished in agreement with Film.com .



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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