Sunday, March 22, 2009
When Anthony Mann made The Furies in 1950, he'd been making hard, tough, low-budget noirs for the past decade, and would shortly become known for making a series of hard, tough Westerns. Most of these latter films would star James Stewart in some of the roles that, along with the films he made for Hitchcock, would help the actor rid himself of his "aw shucks" good guy persona. Mann's films, whether he was working in noirs or Westerns, were ragged, morally ambiguous character studies in which conflicted men were tested by harsh circumstances, running through rigorous gauntlets that wore them down both mentally and physically. In ragged poverty row noirs like Raw Deal and T-Men, Mann's heroes were nearly torn apart by the pressures accumulating on them, and the same pressure-cooker intensity is applied to James Stewart in The Naked Spur or The Far Country, films where Stewart seems to be sweating and trembling beneath the glare of Mann's cameras. The Furies is a somewhat different kind of Western from Mann's Stewart cycle. Based on a novel by Niven Busch, it traffics in the Freudian sexual undercurrents of the writer, and its most prominent protagonist is a woman rather than Mann's preferred male lead. But its harsh tone, its emphasis on psychological and physical trauma, its dark but evocative portrait of wide open Western spaces, provides the evidence of Mann's signature on the film.
The film opens with the triumphant return home of the ranching tycoon T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a grand man whose best years are perhaps behind him but who nevertheless projects all the rugged splendor of a tough, ornery man of the West. He put together his ranch, dubbed the Furies, through his own hard work, and if in his old age he hasn't been able to exploit the land as well as he might have, it's only a small blot on his outsized reputation. His daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is every bit the old man's daughter, as hard and tough as him and proud of it, too. Their relationship is nearly incestuous in its intimacy: Vance scratches his back when he aches, kisses him on the mouth and tells him that she'll only marry when she can find a man who's better than him, who can provide to her the same challenge that he does. She's a strong woman, poised as heiress to the Furies because T.C.'s son Clay (John Bromfield) is as quiet and self-effacing as T.C. and Vance are brash and egoistic; he's an anomaly in this frontier family and seems happy to marry off into another clan. Clay's departure, and T.C.'s increasing mismanagement of the family's funds — he spends freely and has even invented his own currency, an unofficial tender that amounts to a personal I.O.U. — places Vance at the reins of the Furies.
The remainder of the film chronicles the fractures and comeuppances of this archetypal family. The scion of an old Jeffords family rival, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), is aiming to hurt the family by romancing Vance while actually trying to get his hands back on the land that T.C. stole from the Darrow family. And T.C. also complicates things by bringing home a woman of his own, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), a widow who immediately attracts Vance's fiery hatred. Vance is jealous, seeing another woman enter her father's life and be the one to scratch his back when he needs it, and she feels further resentment towards Flo for attempting to replace her mother, whose room at the ranch has been an untouched shrine since her death. Worst of all, however, Flo is subtly pushing Vance out of her throne as the ruler of the Furies, telling her that running a ranch isn't woman's work, that she should hire a competent manager instead. Mann shoots these scenes with a melodramatic touch, shooting the interiors with deep focus lenses from exaggerated angles, framing the characters together in tableaux-like arrangements that accentuate the strained relationships between them. Whereas the film's exterior shots set the characters' dark profiles against a wide, bright sky, suggesting the freedom and escape they seem incapable of achieving, the interiors are often claustrophobic and cramped.
The film's psychological intensity makes it an unrelentingly taut and compelling experience, but it's not completely satisfying as a story. Part of the problem is that the very overwhelming quality of Stanwyck and Huston's performances makes it difficult for anyone else to hold their own onscreen against this pair. Certainly, the handsome but bland Wendell Corey is no match for Stanwyck, and the nearly masochistic, violent relationship between Vance and Darrow is among the film's most unbelievable conceits. Vance is looking for a man who can stand up to her father, who can dominate her and control her, so the way the script requires her to bow to the utterly conventional Darrow is kind of pathetic. She seems to have a much better match in the Mexican squatter Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), who she's known since she was a child, and with whom she shares a friendship that vacillates between sibling rivalry and sexual frisson: from time to time she kisses Juan and he responds, with good cheer, "the kiss of a good friend." Juan is Vance's equal and friend, and one can imagine, in the absence of the racial/ethnic complication, a satisfying romance between them.
But this isn't the kind of film that can allow for that, and a much more unpleasant fate is in store for Juan, at the hands of T.C. In fact, in keeping with much of Mann's work, this is often a thoroughly unpleasant film, lingering on the ugly realities of the Jeffords clan: their indifferent treatment of native squatters, who are killed and chased off at their convenience; their hateful rivalries and habit of turning everything into a competition; their iron-fisted domination of the land around them; their vengeful violent streak. The Jeffords are thoroughly unsympathetic representations of the American will to spread West, to conquer the land, to take possession and make everything they see their own. The film is at its best when it's tracing the messy ways in which this impulse of manifest destiny works when applied to domestic dramas and interpersonal relationships.
True, the film makes some token attempts to rehabilitate and soften the Jeffords family in its final act, struggling towards a Hollywood happy ending in a film that is clearly painted from the palette of the Shakespearean tragedy. Among the many unlikely twists the script requires to reach this happy ending is the resolution of the romance between Vance and Darrow, a romance that, surely, almost no one in the audience could have been rooting for throughout the film. Even worse, the ending represents the taming of Stanwyck's Vance, her conversion into a docile housewife wanting to deliver a son for her man. The ending attempts to smooth over the ugliness and darkness that preceded it, to move towards a sunny denouement. One senses, at least, that Mann can't get completely behind this goal: he stages the film's final moment, a tender conversation between Vance and Darrow as they return to the Furies, as a dark nighttime scene, the two lovers reduced to silhouettes in the gray outdoors, the black outline of the Furies' metal sign hanging above their heads. The scene's dialogue may be hopeful and upbeat, but Mann's mise en scène suggests the opposite. He understands, even if the script does not, that these people are interesting in the first place because they're hard and cold and unlikeable, because they represent unpleasant truths about frontier living and the foundations of the country, because they are, essentially, incapable of being reformed and in any case don't really want to be.