The Criterion Collection welcomes Anthony Mann and the western into its stable with an excellent, underseen story of family conflict starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston.
Anthony Mann is sort of unique in his incredibly neat career delineation, segueing directly from film noir to western to epic. The fifties, in particular, contain several exceptions, things like Men in War, God’s Little Acre and the three non-westerns he did with James Stewart, but that hardly takes away from the fact that Mann mastered the western genre during the decade. How fitting, then, for The Furies, along with Devil’s Doorway and, to a lesser extent, Winchester ’73, to act as a perfect transition from noir to western and for it to have been released at the decade’s onset, in 1950.
The Furies certainly resembles Mann’s noir efforts – in mood, theme, and lighting, if not setting – more than his later westerns would. In this sense, it might be described as atypical of a Mann western. Yet, those wonderful Mann signatures of psychological struggle and conflict, characters pushed to their violent breaking points, and loyalty amid isolation are all present and accounted for here, as are the pure, windswept vistas that position natural beauty against the quiet angst of deliberation. His westerns make clear how enamoured with wide open spaces Mann was and he used these images to great effect in representing his characters’ internal ruptures within their own lives. Brother versus brother becomes a crashing boulder on Stewart in Winchester ’73 while confused loneliness is transformed into Barbara Stanwyck, often in long shot, facing a seemingly endless, cactus-spiked landscape with a skyscraper-like mountain staring her down in The Furies.
No matter the film or role, Stanwyck immediately draws the viewer’s attention as a powerful, slightly masculine figure who still retains an alluring femininity. Perhaps no other leading actress was able to attain such a commanding presence without being relegated to “women’s pictures.” Stanwyck is almost always the most magnetic character in her films, regardless of how sympathetic she is or who her co-stars are. Essentially, she played in the boys’ field and wiped the floor with them whereas many of her contemporaries opted to have pictures built around them, usually ones with a greater appeal to female audiences. Stanwyck’s character in The Furies is one of her many classic roles – a woman struggling for romance, power, love, and paternal acceptance. Her dead mother has left behind a room she requested remain untouched. Her father is T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a powerful cattle ranch owner whose ruling days are dwindling. His self-minted “T.C.’s” are quickly becoming unacceptable as IOU’s and the bank is ready to go nipping. Meanwhile, a Mexican family, the Herreras, have been squatting on his vast New Mexico acreage because they believe it to be rightfully theirs. Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) has developed a very close, intimate friendship with Stanwyck’s Vance.
The Herreras figure into the most significant conflict we see between Vance and T.C., one that concerns his new future bride Flo (played by Judith Anderson). She makes no bones about her financial interests in the relationship and is adamant about removing the Herreras from the ranch. Daughter is jealous and still licking her wounds from an utter rejection by Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whose own father was swindled out of a tract of land now on The Furies, the name of the Jeffords’ ranch. If the film has a single climax, it must involve a pair of scissors. Violence unexpected and cold, brash reactions that dictate the remainder of the plot are the result. It’s tempting to make too big of a deal of this remarkably effective scene, both because it’s entirely unexpected and since it serves as the main shift of emphasis. Whatever Mann and his screenwriter Charles Schnee (adapting Niven Busch’s novel) intended, they probably accomplished. The sequence is both memorable and outrageous. A lesser director would have allowed it to descend into some sort of horrifically off-point concoction of camp.
Scenes like this were obviously honed by Mann’s days as director of low-budget films later known as noir. The kinks in his direction are gone. His style is established. His artistry is perfectly in place. Mann’s westerns are as singularly his as John Ford’s or Sam Peckinpah’s were theirs. That transition period between noir and western comes thematically full circle right here with the reflective metal of those scissors. Stanwyck on a horse, shadowed in darkness with skies so grey they seem blue, is the logical progression into the west. Tension simmers beneath the surface just as noir requires, but with the open spaces heretofore unrealised by the inherent claustrophobic qualities of the style’s shiny cities. Save for perhaps Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (also from the pen of Busch), it’s nearly impossible to locate a film that combines so successfully the two demonstrably different styles as what we see in Mann’s film. Stanwyck’s presence makes things all the more intriguing, transforming the picture into a further hybrid of noir/western/female melodrama. The Furies is a noir with cowboy hats and a western only by way of cattle and horses. If there’s anything the film relies upon as a more primary inspiration, it’s Greek tragedy and family in crisis.
The psychological depths lurking within the narrative are abundant and almost overwhelming. The relationship between Stanwyck’s Vance and Huston’s T.C. is noticeably strange. She’s taken over her mother’s room, partially against his wishes. She struggles with just the right level of freedom before eventually rebelling altogether from the ranch. Paternal familiarities are eschewed in favour of “T.C.” It’s quite obviously an odd, complicated line separating father and daughter. Much is left unsaid, hardly hinted at in the film, but the viewer can feel it lying in the fringe. T.C.’s striking and harsh proclamation to kill his own child if Flo ends up dying from the scissors attack seems to come flying out of nowhere. In his last screen performance, Huston, as he is throughout the film, remains dangerously perfect, an ideal melding of two distinctly different eras of acting at work here. His two scenes of going head-to-head with the character’s own cattle are impressive in their unspoken importance and in how they demonstrate a virility in T.C. that’s now become anachronistic.
By aiming for such a lofty combination of ideas, Mann’s film can’t help but set itself up for its own collapse in the final act. Hard edges are suddenly softened and everyone remembers there are traditional narrative devices (not to mention censors) to please. In addition, the weaknesses of Wendell Corey, both as a somewhat miscast and limited actor and in his inconsistent character Rip, are difficult to overlook, but ultimately forgivable. There are also the slightly messy, always fascinating tangents running wild inside the film that end up dissolved unnaturally. It’s not surprising that something so bizarre finally corrects itself in Hollywood circa 1950, but that neither entirely justifies a return to convention nor does it negate the excellence found in the majority of the picture.
Occupying spine number 435 in the Criterion Collection, The Furies is the first legitimate film in the western genre to be released on DVD by the label. It’s a worthy choice, and slides right into their frequent championing of neglected auteurs by shining the spotlight directly on Anthony Mann. The film was originally made for Paramount and has been licensed by Criterion for this R1 release. And what a hefty one it is. Despite the digital contents being limited to a single dual-layered disc, the package is an impressive affair with a thick spine and a new printing of the 267-page novel by Niven Busch. Book and digipak are housed in a cardboard slipcase.
Other than being needlessly pictureboxed, the 1.33:1 image looks predictably good. This progressive transfer hasn’t eliminated all of the various speckles of dirt, but the end result should be scrubbed enough for most discerning eyes, without feeling antiseptic. There is no significant damage to speak of in the print, though there is some mild flickering present. Additionally, sharpness in detail is at least acceptable, if not necessarily impressive by the highest of standards, and the black and white contrast is pleasing. A bit of boosting may have taken place. Digital noise is also present, most noticeably in the bright sky during the many outdoor shots. All in all, the video quality is fine, and probably consistent with the existing materials, but pretty far away from how well films of this vintage are capable of looking.
The English Dolby Digital mono track sounds adequate, with one-channel audio coming through the middle front speaker. Some minor hiss is present, but it’s an otherwise acceptable listen. Franz Waxman’s orchestral score thunders out when necessary and dialogue is never difficult to hear, always at a consistent volume. Expectations should be met here. English subtitles, white in colour, are provided for the feature only. None of the supplements are subtitled.
A full-length commentary by Jim Kitses, author of the seminal 1969 book Horizons West, comes across as academic and dry. There’s a good deal of information and analysis contained in Kitses’ prepared, deliberate speech, but it’s delivered with much stiffness. Kitses clearly appreciates Mann and seems ready for an all-out defense of Wendell Corey. Those who adore analysing the western may perhaps get the most from the track. It’s disappointing to report, however, that I found listening to Kitses to be quite tough going. His content is already thick as fog, and the added frustration of hearing Kitses obviously read from notes makes for an uneasy combination. This is as good an example as any of the benefits in subtitling commentary tracks, a practice Criterion has never partook in and one which nonetheless seems a natural fit for their releases.
The remaining disc supplements are a bit thin, but certainly worthwhile. “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” a 1967 sitdown with Mann for the BBC programme The Movies, is a treat. It was recorded just before he went to work on the cold war thriller A Dandy in Aspic, a project he was unable to complete after suffering a heart attack and dying in April of 1967. In the interview, the director discusses his love of the exhausted antihero, the influence of Murnau, and some of the westerns he made with James Stewart. (Three of which are reviewed here.) The Furies, however, is never mentioned. Another vintage piece is advertised as an interview with Walter Huston, but is really probably closer to a short subject. “Intimate Interviews: Walter Huston” is from 1931 and is a glossy, somewhat silly account of a female member of the press visiting Huston’s Hollywood home. The actor is seen rejecting a part over the phone with the emphasis that he doesn’t want to play any more district attorney roles, taking a leap into his swimming pool, and generally beguiling interviewer and audience.
In an interview done especially for this release, Anthony Mann’s daughter Nina Mann discusses her father and the realisation she had as an adult that he was a skilled artist instead of simply a roving workman. It’s a nice piece and does at least touch on the film at hand. The disc is rounded out by a theatrical trailer and a short stills gallery. Inside the handsome digipak is a booklet of 38 pages featuring a lengthy essay by Robin Wood and excerpts from an interview with Mann conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol. Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma in March of 1957, the piece finds Mann discussing in refreshingly frank terms his work and views, and is similar to the interview from a decade later found on the disc. However, here the director is even more open and unafraid to disparage films his own (The Last Frontier and everything prior to Desperate), as well as those made by others (Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll). The Furies only comes up briefly and Mann likens the story to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, remarking that he’d have preferred to make the latter.
Finally, as mentioned above, Niven Busch’s novel of The Furies has been specially reprinted, in a rather large font size, and included with this release. Special recognition is deserved for Sarah Habibi and Eric Skillman’s art direction of the packaging, as well as the latter’s package design. It’s a thing of beauty that helps place Mann and the film in a newfound rarefied air of sorts. This entire edition by Criterion should even serve to continue elevating his status as one of the great unsung auteurs from a particular branch of American cinema.
I’ve found that the more I delve into the entirety of film as a whole, certain pet directors repeatedly pop up as favourites, whether it’s in newly discovering small gems or revisiting established classics. Anthony Mann firmly occupies a spot there for me, and I think it’s largely due to his films being able, like some sort of harmless celluloid drug, to give me what it is that I want from movies. The film noir titles he made with cinematographer John Alton, including the well-regarded T-Men and Raw Deal, to which I’d also add Border Incident as very near their equal, accomplish what film noir should by emitting constant, nervous uncertainty cloaked in beautifully dark shadow lighting. The five westerns Mann made with James Stewart act similarly for that type of film, and they never fail to achieve what I’m looking for in examples of the genre. The Furies doesn’t entirely do the same for me, but it seems to be coming from so many different angles that perhaps its ambition overreaches its own limitations. There’s still very much of an excellent film brooding inside, and one could hardly ask for a better presentation than how Criterion has outfitted its edition. By positioning the release around Mann, the company has assured well-deserved attention to the director and provided fans with supplements unlikely to be gathered by most any other label.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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