When one is forced to think of directors typically associated with the western genre, only a few names leap instantly to mind. After one immediately blurts out “JOHN FORD” and “CLINT EASTWOOD” and fumbles around to say “um… well… oh gee… Sergio Leone?” the wellspring usually runs dry. This is certainly understandable; these men did create some of the most iconic entries to the genre. It does a disservice though to director Anthony Mann, who also managed to contribute enormously to the western film.
An easy way to gauge that contribution is to examine his 1950 opus The Furies, a dark, depressing anti-western whose bleak themes are matched only by the stark barrenness of its central setting. Strong in both storytelling and character development, The Furies portrays a hellish dive into the squabbles of Jeffords clan. This family is headed by an aging patriarch and professional megalomaniac named T.C. (Walter Huston, in his final role), a cattle baron whose self-obsession knows no bounds. As the owner of a massive swath of land (from which the film takes its name), T.C. Jeffords is a self-styled lord, utterly ruthless in his personal and professional dealings. In fact, the character is so indifferent to several cultural norms (namely submission to the mechanics of an economy) that he has taken to paying his land’s expenses with I.O.U notes, which he has perhaps unsurprisingly labeled “T.C.’s.”
T.C. runs The Furies with his daughter Vance, played with obsessive, volatile ambition by the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck. The pair share a loving yet tempestuous relationship, with Vance simultaneously desiring to be close to her father, and wanting him out of the way so that she might claim the land for herself.
Things become even more complicated (and more Freudian) when the long-widowed T.C. decides to bring home a new woman named Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson). Much to Vance chagrin, Flo almost immediately installs herself as head of the household, and is openly dismissive of Vance’s desire to own and run The Furies by herself. This drives Vance into what nearly becomes a homicidal fury, and her utter rejection of her father’s new love interest mirrors T.C.’s own hostility towards Vance’s attempts at romance. Early in the film the character falls heavily for a man named Rip Darrow (a slimy Wendell Corey), who harbors antipathy for her father due to his belief that a part of The Furies is rightfully his.
The setting of Mann’s film (which was shot in Arizona) is perfectly congruent with the story’s themes, augmenting the mood of loneliness and isolation already palpable in the story’s proceedings. The barren landscapes of The Furies seem perfectly complimentary to the central characters, who all feel mildly sociopathic, devoid of any emotions that aren’t egocentric or avaricious.
Both Stanwyck and Huston are perfect in their respective parts, with their stormy connection providing much of the film’s drama. One scene revolves around the two characters discussing Vance’s search for a husband, to which T.C. jovially exclaims that he has “ruined” all men for her. The two then look at each other, their faces only a few inches away. It’s an intense scene, and one that encapsulates their combustive dynamic – which is defined by both love and hate, solidarity and conflict. Creepy albeit fascinating, these two characters possess layered, complicated emotions; and their motivations are anything but transparent.
As their relationship slowly sours over the course of the story, Mann’s aesthetics follow suit. Many scenes on the arid plains and hilltops of The Furies are cloaked in darkness, with the film’s sole gun battle (between T.C.’s men and another resident of The Furies, the Herrera family) serving as a nexus for this type of aesthetic and thematic gloom. T.C.’s acrimonious conflict with the Herrera family, who live in the hills adjacent to the Jeffords’ manor, is one of the film’s most significant subplots. It’s a complicated situation, especially because of Vance’s on-again, off-again relationship with the family’s leader Juan, who offers his assistance to her once a rift opens between her and T.C.
This subplot evokes the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to the western genre, where whenever a Caucasian landowner reigns supreme you can bet that possible oppression and disenfranchisement is behind it. This particular film is no exception, with the Herreras claiming that their relationship to The Furies predates the Jeffords, and T.C. looking upon them as mere squatters.
Mann, to his credit, seems intuitively aware of these issues. He suggests the Herreras’ superior affinity for the land by depicting their homes as built almost literally into the terrain of The Furies. However, this intriguing conflict never obtains further elaboration, with the Herreras being absent from much of the film’s last act. In fact, many of the film’s storylines begin to deflate as it nears its conclusion. This can be partially attributed to the severing that occurs between Vance and T.C., whose closeness may have made one’s flesh crawl, but also helped give the film some electricity. The pulpy, lurid melodrama, not to mention psychosexual tension that drove the film’s first sections, is largely absent near the story’s end, replaced by a far less absorbing – yet strangely obtuse – revenge plot. This small dip in quality is unfortunate. A majority of The Furies personifies Mann at his best, where the director was able to capture not only the harshness of the range, but the complex and calculated psyches of its people.