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The Furies (1950)

Dir: Anthony Mann, Criterion

This human being possess identifiable gender characteristics. Can you name them? © Paramount Pictures
This human being possess identifiable gender characteristics. Can you name them? © Paramount Pictures

Winchester ’73, Mann’s revenge saga starring Jimmy Stewart (and featuring Rock Hudson in his screen debut as an Indian chief), seems closer to naturalism than any prior Mann film. Characters walked, talked, stood, shot and rode much as human beings actually might. Gone was the over-stylized speaking, the stone-faced men, the constantly hysterical women. The pacing, too, seemed to mark a new Mann-gone was the usual sense of glaciers whizzing past. So, it’s reasonable to assume that his following films would become even more naturalistic, more reasonable in tone and narrative, less operatic. But, no…

Mann is tricky. His films are acquired tastes. He made a couple of classic noirs that are almost impossible to sit through (please see: glaciers, whizzing, above) and yet irresistible—T-Men and Border Incident. And he made Raw Deal, an almost perfect, perfectly cheesy, perfectly perverse noir and the only noir in which a woman provides the narrative voice-over. Mann then brought his noir sensibility to the Western: humans treat each other poorly, love spells doom, men’s obsessions obliterate all common sense or worthy purpose, the landscape-the world itself-overwhelms human intention and all effort comes to pretty much naught. Unless that effort involves killing someone, and then it’s rewarded, no matter how difficult the aftermath. Lots of people die in Mann westerns. It’s usually the vanity of others that kills them.

The Furies-Mann’s first film after Winchester ’73-contains all the Mannian tropes, for good or ill: clumsy transitions; weird gigantic close-ups of actors speaking in forced monotones; vengeful murder and vengeance, period; supposedly sex-object dudes who behave like walking corpses and the overly-ardent women who love them. It’s an unsettling mix of Mann at his most naturalist (Walter Huston playing the daddy from hell with such force of personality and humor) and most artificial (Gilbert Roland and Wendell Corey doing their best I-Am-Robot impressions).

And yet, The Furies remains Mann’s masterpiece, the apotheosis of his style and themes. Barbara Stanwyck plays the toughest, most daddy-fixated woman in the history of Westerns. Her relationship with Walter Huston is astonishingly perverse, pretty much the sickest father/daughter connection until Walter’s son John made all The Furies’ implications manifest in Chinatown.

Victor Milner provides the epic, operatic cinematography, and he had shot 129 films prior to The Furies, including Unfaithfully Yours for Preston Sturges. Milner holds to Mann’s John Fordian motifs-the sky dominates, the earth reaches to the far horizon and the protagonists stand alone and abandoned in between, floating above one, crushed by the other. Milner brings the same grand aesthetic to interiors and close-ups, occasionally with unintentionally camp results.

The Furies concerns will, and how the world bends in the face of it. Stanwyck wants what she wants, and when she and her dad’s wills align, none can stand against them. But they clash, inevitably, and the collateral damage scorches the earth and the soul of both combatants.

Maybe it’s intentional that none of the male characters can match Huston and certainly all the women pale in the face of Stanwyck’s gender-bending power. Mann suggests a hierarchical universe, one predicated on Nietzsche (or the Hollywood system). Mann’s ruthless view of human nature elevates the story to another realm of profundity. Though the Furies claims to be a Western, it plays like the Old Testament, or Greek tragedy: when the gods rumble, look out below.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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