Saturday, June 26, 2010

Archival Footage: The Furies (1950)

After watching Anthony Mann's 1950 western The Furies, I considered my options.  Clearly, I thought, something must be written.  Though the film's Criterion release is a fairly recent occurrence, Under 250 seemed too slight of a subject header.  Yes, Really was out of the question as it's relatively doubtful that anyone in my peer group would ever utter the words "really?  You've never seen The Furies?"  Just not going to happen.  So, we must dip into the loosely defined Archival Footage tag.  M. and I have underused Archival Footage.  We would love to write analysis heavy essays on each classic we watch or re-watch, but there are only so many hours in our already harried lives.  Perhaps one day we'll be able to fund such lounging.  Dare to dream. 

In any case, The Furies begged for commentary.  I am, by nature, not a Western fan.  The genre has done little for me in spite of prolonged exposure, and while I enjoy High Noon and have been subjected to The Searchers enough times to suffer a Stockholm Syndrome similar to the one experienced by Natalie Wood's character, I usually have to force myself to watch stories about literal cowboys.  What Westerns I do take a liken' to are typically tales of antiheroes and corruption marked more notably by epic cinematography than by thematic genre headers.  The Furies, I suppose, is one of these. 
Walter Huston plays T.C. Jeffords, a sort of Daniel Plainview heavily invested in cattle instead of oil.  He's bitter, selfish, and mean; motivated by revenge and gain towards destructive acts.  He lives on a ranch named "The Furies".  The moniker comes from those vengeful winged women of myth, and you can bet the titular allusion is a sign of things to come.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Vance Jeffords, T.C.'s spitfire daughter who has taken on some of her father's hard-nosed, mercurial qualities as her own.  Vance and T.C. get what they want when they want it.  When both parties take up lovers the other does not approve of, a latent violence is awakened on the ranch.  Vance has her share of daddy issues, and with a one-two punch of rejection and wrongdoing, she's had enough.  Father and daughter exact their manipulative punishment of one another on outside parties, with physical harm and emotional repercussions upping the stakes higher and higher.  T.C. has raised Vance in his image only to find that, when she is no longer a loyal daughter, she makes a particularly formidable adversary.

The Furies is a psychological film and a western perhaps in setting only.  The climax doesn't arrive at high noon, the gun play and equestrian elements are downplayed in favor of tense dramatic scenes. Shift this story into corporate America or society's climbing, competing upper echelons and it would be equally convincing.  Yet, the land does something for the film's hard little heart.  It's desolate and dark.  Mann uses rich creeping blacks and shadows to inform his narrative.  There's a peril outside as well as inside the family estate, and the labyrinth of the Jeffords mansion aids and abets the dangers lurking in the minds of its inhabitants.  
The result is a bona fide gem.  Professors have been trying to sell me on the merits of Barbara Stanwyck for years.  Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity...all good movies, to be sure, yet not a one of them sold me on what Stanwyck was really capable of.  Turns out, Janet, if you'd wanted to sway me to your side of the Stanwyck love fest, you should have used the most unlikely contender: the western.  Stanwyck and Huston are incredibly well-matched lead performers.  Everything, from body language to the tone of their voices to the looks in their eyes seeths with a literal fury.  The dialogue is sharp, the intensity it's delivered with equally so.  Stanwyck makes for a more coolly subdued loose cannon here than she does as the literal femme fatale exemplar in Double Indemnity.  She's sharp, conflicted, and dangerous in that way that people who don't take crap from anybody always are.  Stanwyck makes the movie and ascends rapidly to the top of the heap in so far as female characters in this particular genre are concerned.  See it, whether you think you might be interested or not.  The Criterion transfer makes it doubly worthwhile.

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