THE FURIES, 1950
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston
A firebrand heiress clashes with her tyrannical father, a cattle rancher who fancies himself a Napoleon; but their relationship turns ugly only when he finds himself a new woman.
The Furies, directed by Anthony Mann, is a western with Ancient Greek literary underpinnings. Mann previously worked on Quo Vadis and would later direct The Fall of the Roman Empire so he had an apparent interest in antiquity. In the film, the ranch owned by TC Jeffords (Walter Huston) is named The Furies; in the novel of the same name, the ranch is called Birdfoot. This name change makes a significant difference in how the viewer connects the ranch (and its mythological namesake) to the characters. The main character, Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), has a deep attachment to The Furies; while this is a literal emotional attachment that she feels, it also suggests a metaphorical attachment to the Furies of Greek mythology. Vance’s relationship with her father TC is similar to that of Oedipus and Jocasta. In the Greek myth, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother (obviously, a gender reversal has occurred in the film). The Furies are avengers of murder. They are especially unforgiving of patricides (or matricides as it would be in this case). While it is never stated that Vance had a hand in her mother’s murder, it is apparent that Vance is extremely close to TC and has symbolically replaced her mother as TC’s wife. Furthermore, she is violent towards TC’s girlfriend, Flo (Judith Anderson), when she learns that he intends to marry her.
Mann showcases the wide and vast landscape common to most western films but the film really belongs to the actors. He allows the camera to linger on the actors’ reactions to each other, especially Stanwyck. The scene involving Flo and Vance in her mother’s room particularly captures the high tension between the two women.
Besides the family conflict among the Jeffords, there is a desire to evict the Herreras from the The Furies ranch. They are considered to be squatters despite having been on the land as long as Jeffords. Vance has a relationship with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) stemming from their childhood; she doesn’t want to evict the Herreras because of their friendship. However, part of her reluctance also comes from wanting to be contrary to her father’s wishes. Their relationship becomes truly strained when TC plans to marry Flo. While Vance always had hoped to inherit The Furies, she sets out to claim her birthright by outwitting TC and bringing along Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) as her partner in crime. At this stage, Vance becomes less Oedipus and more Orestes. She seeks revenge against her father: first, for wanting to marry Flo and replace her mother and second, for wanting to remove the Furies from Vance’s management.
Rip and Vance make a perfect match and Corey plays him with an ever present smug grin. Stanwyck too seems to have a self satisfied smile, although it is rather coy compared to Corey’s blatant arrogance. In his last performance, Walter Huston once again plays a type best described as a “happy curmudgeon.” His joy thinly veils a grumpy persona which becomes unleashed when he’s challenged (e.g. by Rip Darrow and the Herreras). One gets the sense that this was how Huston was in real life; his acting is so naturalistic, he doesn’t seem to be acting at all.
While the ending is predictably tragic, it provides a satisfactory resolution. The film is more of a character study than a plot driven story and provides a platform for some great character actors. Mann deserves credit for obtaining such naturalistic performances from his actors and constructs a tragic western that is on par with its Greek predecessors.
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