Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Furies

The Furies
seen online via YouTube

Given her early days as a Brooklyn showgirl turned film star of contemporary dramas and comedies, Barbara Stanwyck probably didn't seem like a natural for Westerns at first. The future Big Valley TV star, however, took to them fairly well. According to this Movie Morlocks piece, she had always had an interest in them:
...A political conservative, Stanwyck did not take on these roles to make a point about her gender, and she would likely be uninterested in a feminist interpretation of them. Apparently, the Old West fascinated her, and she once referred to the era’s gunfighters, pioneers, and outlaws as “our royalty, our aristocracy” in an interview. After Stanwyck’s divorce from Robert Taylor was finalized in 1951, she kept their ranch and continued to ride the horses. She was in prime riding shape for the westerns she made during the 1950s, and she was inclined to perform her own stunts. Forty Guns includes a dangerous scene in which her foot is caught in a stirrup, and she is dragged across the prairie, a stunt she did herself when the stuntwoman refused. In The Maverick Queen, her character is chased across the wilderness and forced down a rocky incline, a treacherous maneuver for horses. The stunt required sure hands and a steady seat, but Stanwyck had no trouble pulling it off.
I picked out The Furies to watch because I wanted to watch a western, and one with Stany definitely fit the bill for me. I was also interested in it as an Anthony Mann-directed film. I knew his name as a director of crime flicks and westerns, such as Bend of the River, and I had wanted to sample more of his films. It also had Walter Huston. Sounded like a winner to me.

Was it ever! "The Furies" is the name of a ranch owned by Huston's character, and Stany is his daughter. The movie is basically a power struggle between the two of them for ultimate control of the ranch. Imagine Lady Macbeth as the daughter of King Lear and you'll get an idea of what to expect in terms of tone. I don't think I've ever seen a western quite like this before. Stany is ambitious and seductive in a way few women characters are in westerns, and honestly, the best way to describe the conflict between her and Huston is in Shakespearean terms.

Theirs is a rather unique relationship. At the outset, it's clear that Stany has been made in Huston's image. In fact, he fully intends to leave her The Furies when he passes on, and she's in the process of being groomed for that role. They're more like business partners than parent and child, and the more we see of them together, the more we sense a kind of sexual tension between them. At least, I did!

Stany has a swagger to her here. It's as if she took Phyllis Dietrichson, dropped her into the 19th century frontier, and amplified her sexuality and her nerve - though never in a campy or over-the-top way. We see her sitting with her boots up on her father's desk, doing business with his peers, as he does. For the most part, she is accepted on her own terms. She's almost never looked upon as unusual in any way.

Naturally, she needs a rival, and she gets one in the form of her Strange Love of Martha Ivers co-star Judith Anderson, who catches Huston's eye and seems to have an agenda of her own, which could easily mean pushing Stany out of the picture. This eventually leads to Stany doing something very shocking (I audibly gasped), and from that point on, war is declared between father and daughter.

There's also a subplot involving her seduction of banker Wendell Corey (with whom she also appeared in The File on Thelma Jordon in the same year, 1950, as The Furies), and theirs is also a twisted relationship. There's a bit of a Rhett-and-Scarlett vibe to them; he understands her game, but he doesn't seem to want to make it too obvious that he's hot for her. There is some semi-violent foreplay, which Stany almost seems to like (though not at first). At one point she attempts to throw a cake at him! He also has to do business with her, which further complicates matters. And did I mention that she also has a friend-with-benefits in a Mexican dude whose clan is squatting on the Furies' land? Yeah, there's a lot going on in this story!

Huston is magnificent, as usual. He was a versatile actor. The first movie I saw him in was Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and in the ones I've seen him in since, I always found it tricky to make the connection between him there and him elsewhere, until now. He has an awesome scene in The Furies where he rides on horseback chasing down a bull, lassos it, and WRESTLES IT TO THE GROUND. John Wayne never did that!

This, as if it weren't obvious by now, is a terrific movie. There's a grandness to these characters that's appropriate to the genre: bold men and women doing bold things in a fight for control of the frontier. The difference lies in the shades of gray these characters are rendered in. Metaphorically speaking, no one wears a black or a white hat, and that's what makes them seem that much more real. I'm kinda surprised I've never read a great deal about this movie before now. It feels quite modern, and it holds up.


  1. Fabulous, on-the-money review of "The Furies". I haven't seen it in years and often kick myself for not picking up a Criterion copy that was on sale once.

    A highlight for me is the atypical role given to Beulah Bondi (wife scorned). For once in a film, she had the chance to be elegant and classy - not just "old".

  2. Thanks for mentioning her. I had her on my mind when I started writing this and I forgot. She has a small part, but a very good one, and you're right, it's quite different from what she usually did.


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