Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson
This year I’ve been fervently trying to even up my experience of the so-called golden age of cinema, in doing so I’ve made attempts to embrace one of the genres that I have previously spied with dubiousness and suspicion; the western.
To the uninitiated, the genre has the caricatured appearance of outmoded machismo, steeped in the downright racist. Chiefly this seems due to the shadow of both ‘qualities’ that falls over the field thanks to the legacy of John Wayne, whose work I hold little love or admiration for. Indeed, I had acquainted the whole arena of the western with Wayne’s stodgy symbolism, his hulking frame. Perhaps in time that’ll change. If shared, such assumptions shouldn’t stop curious viewers from exploring a rich land of cinema from and harking back to another time and place.
Anthony Mann’s westerns have done much to change my perspective and awaken my curiosity. Winchester ’73 suffers from many of the western’s famed prejudices, yet Mann’s mastery of the medium and his story balances against this (and it features a terrific poker scene); The Naked Spur (another with Jimmy Stewart) is a harrowing, claustrophobic marvel. But besting all for me is his 1950 film The Furies, which pushes against conformity, centralising a ferociously strong and determined woman.
That woman is Vance Jeffords, played with gusto and gumption by the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck; one of the finest leading ladies of her time, be it in screwball comedy (Ball Of Fire) or as the ultimate femme fatale for Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity). Here she plays the daughter of a jovial yet tyrannical New Mexico rancher, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston). His ranch – The Furies of the title – spread as far as the eye can see in every direction. He even has his own currency, though they amount to little more than IOUs. Though land-rich, he is cash-poor. Vance, a firebrand young woman, is set to inherit the land… and the problems that come with it.
Money matters aside, the land has squatters; Mexicans known as the Herreras. Chief among these men is Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), with whom Vance shares a teased and charismatic flirtation. Stanwyck and Roland smoulder at one another with the wind rippling through their clothes. And the winds blow strong through The Furies; Mann accentuates the open spaces of the plains and the hostility of the land through these barreling gusts.
Another furtive romance stirs between Vance and her father’s chief rival, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey). Though the relationship of the most chemistry and intimacy that proves the focal point of the film is the one between Vance and her father. She is every bit his equal in intelligence and verve. They spar as business partners might in other films of the era, but also share occasional moments of deftly played closeness. Mann is careful not to suggest anything so sordid as an incestuous bond. Rather The Furies sees father and daughter vying not just for dominance but for the respect of the other. This is how warmth is parceled between them.
The situation is further complicated by the arrival of T.C.’s former flame Florence Burnett (Judith Anderson), who returns to him and soon challenges Vance for the role of most significant woman in his life. Though the dynamic isn’t identical, it draws strong parallels to the bizarre love triangle that forms the fulcrum of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent masterpiece Phantom Thread. The Furies bristles with the same composed combustibility. Words are daggers. Filthy looks are flying bullets. There’s delicious and dark comedy in the waltz these three players perform.
Vance is not above throwing actual blades of her own, disfiguring Flo and fleeing to the Herreras. T.C. gives chase and a gunfight ensues. Mann relishes the grandiose melodrama of it all. Vance descending the stairs following her attack on Flo is imbued with a glorious gothic menace.
Stanwyck is astonishing. The film seems to exist around her, so assuredly does she own it. Strong women of the west are few and far between. Stanwyck made such an impression here that she went on to play a similarly assured role for Samuel Fuller in his 1957 film Forty Guns. The Furies is that rare thing; a feminist western, accepting that women who braved the pioneer and stood their ground had every bit the grit and perseverance of their peacocking male counterparts. Even as Vance tries to undermine T.C., it is the wife of the bank manager and not the bank manager himself who gets the gears of her plot turning. We see the real power behind the men. Even the disfigured Flo has agency over the fate of T.C. And his fate falls in the hands of yet another…
Here the Mexicans stand in for the role we might ordinarily presume will go to the Native Americans, but the west was cruel to all minorities, and it is worth recollecting the newness of the boundaries of these territories. America was still taking shape, and the Mexican border waxed and waned. Not for nothing, but the Mexican characters included are portrayed favourably; devout, honourable and hardworking (whether for others or themselves). Vance kisses Juan with great affection and it is not taboo or scandalous; they are as equals. In short, The Furies‘ credentials as a feminist western are not undermined by shortsightedness elsewhere, even given the events of the film’s finale.
Passionate emotions run riot to match those high winds, but just as they can kindle affection, they also cause stress and damage. The feud between Vance and T.C. threatens to be their own undoing, and Mann’s film tends toward a weary and dim view of family as ultimately destructive, despite – and because of – its bonds. It also prefigures the credit card crisis to come; of an American empire built on debt and collapsed by the same.
But for me, personally, this film has quickly become an avatar for my changing opinion of the genre as a whole. It’s a complicated recess of cinema. To deny its problems would be folly and blindness. But what’s worth recognition and celebration are the times when the western was more than its reputation in some quarters, more than what we assume it to be. I’ll remain on the lookout for examples as gloriously inclined toward my own sensibilities as The Furies.
And more ready to confront those that go against them.