When he was a kid, Judge Gordon Sullivan built a treehouse with his own two hands. He called it The Furies.
This is the story of the 1870s…in the New Mexico territory…when men created kingdoms out of land and cattle…and ruled their empires like feudal lords. Such a man was T.C. Jeffords…who wrote this flaming page in the history of the great Southwest.
Westerns have so long been a staple of American (and international) cinema that it's easy to understand how even very excellent films in the genre could be overshadowed in favor of the more well-known examples of the style . The Furies is a perfect example of an underappreciated film that combines elements of the Western with those of the "woman's" picture of the day. Daring in its use of psychology and its depiction of racial interaction, The Furies gets the typically excellent Criterion treatment.
Facts of the Case
T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) built his ranch—The Furies—with his own two hands, piecing the land together bit by bit. His wife bore him two children before she died, and he has created a shrine from her old room. The Furies takes place after his children are grown, when T.C. returns to The Furies after a long absence to see his son get married. Although T.C. has wealth in land and cattle, he's running low on hard cash, and he expects his daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) to manage the ranch for him. When both T.C. and Vance engage in relationships that could tip the balance of power between father and daughter, the fate of The Furies will hang in the balance.
No one seems quite able to agree on the origins of the story of The Furies. Some argue it's from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, while others say King Lear or maybe Greek tragedy. In any case, the West is a large canvas, and as the possible inspirations for the story demonstrate, The Furies paints a story to fill that canvas. The Furies is not a film of subtlety and restraint. Instead, it's an oversized heart beating with blood and thunder, as actors chew scenery while lives are won and lost. Luckily, though, big doesn't mean simple. The Furies is not a Western where men in white hats face off men in black hats on the town square at noon. No, The Furies is about the great but flawed men and women who helped shape the west through sheer will and cussedness.
Whatever the literary inspiration for The Furies, it is a film obviously steeped in Freudian psychology. The absent (dead) mother, the hypermasculine father, as well as the daughter-as-maternal-replacement all smack of psychoanalysis. The borderline incestuous (and certainly inappropriate) relationship between T.C. and Vance plays out like a case history as much as a drama. The world of The Furies is also one where violence and sex seem interchangeable, and the only genuine affection is shared in a doomed relationship (between Vance and Juan). While these psychological aspects may seem a little overblown (even for melodrama), they give The Furies an interesting angle, a complexity not often seen in the genre.
Complexity is also brought to the film by director Anthony Mann. As several of the extras point out, Mann liked his landscapes to reflect his characters, and The Furies is no exception. The climactic battle between T.C.'s band and Juan's family is fought on a mountain and fraught with significance. Juan and his family use the fractured rocks of the mountain to maintain their freedom, while T.C.'s men use dynamite to shake the mountain and the Herreras. In other hands it might just have been another shootout, but with careful attention to landscape and character, Mann makes this battle mean more.
Although Anthony Mann demonstrates tremendous skill in bringing The Furies to life, his effort would be in vain without Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. Neither of their characters is completely sympathetic, but both manage to be fascinating enough to make the audience forget their dislike. Huston (in his final screen performance) is so full of grand vitality it's hard to believe he isn't a teenager. T.C. Jeffords is larger than life, and Huston plays him that way, chewing up scenery and giving the Western one of its more interesting cattle barons. Barbara Stanwyck has an even more difficult job. She must balance delicately between the demands on her as a woman and her role as overseer on The Furies. Ultimately, she comes across as more womanly than the other women and more masculine and capable than any of the men. It's a striking performance.
Unsurprisingly, Criterion has released a superb edition of The Furies. The transfer is largely excellent. There's a bit of flicker, some grain, and a few scenes that are a little too dark, but overall the video looks better than its age would suggest. The mono soundtrack was surprisingly rich, reproducing Franz Waxman's thundering score with little hiss or distortion.
For a single-disc edition, this DVD feels surprisingly packed. First up is a large booklet containing an essay by critic Robin Wood as well as an interview from Cahiers du cinéma with director Anthony Mann. Wood discusses some of the genesis and themes of the picture, while the interview covers Mann's career as well as some of his opinions on other filmmakers. Both are interesting additions to the film. Continuing the literary theme, Criterion includes the complete text of Niven Busch's source novel, also called The Furies.
On the disc itself, there is an audio commentary by film historian Jim Kitses. He discusses the themes and imagery in the film, as well as the history of the major players behind the film. There is also more from Anthony Mann in the form of an interview entitled "Actions Speak Louder Than Words." Mann is surprisingly gregarious for a maker of Westerns, and his views on the craft of cinema are interesting in light of The Furies. There is also some input from Walter Huston in a piece culled from a 1930s interview. Huston is rakish and charming as a young interviewer comes to speak to him at his home. It's not too in-depth, but paints an interesting picture of the actor. There's also an interview with Mann's daughter, Nina, where she discusses her father and her feelings about The Furies. Finally, there's a still gallery and a trailer to round out the supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Furies is a big film about big people doing big things. If you're looking for subtlety and realism, you're in the wrong place.
Kudos again to Criterion for taking a generally overlooked gem like The Furies and polishing it to a brilliant luster with an excellent audiovisual presentation and an interesting set of extras. The Furies is a surprising film in a number of ways, and fans of the Western are urged to check it out. The film is also worth watching for those looking to see two actors (Huston and Stanwyck) interact at the top of their game.
Despite the film's overblown nature, The Furies is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Jim Kitses
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