Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 06 August 2009
Source Criterion Collection DVD
Categories Women of the West
Critically dissected for its references to Greek Tragedy, The Furies is also fundamentally American in its study of power, specifically that key facet of control in the founding of the West: territory, and the power derived from ownership. Films involving acquisition are fascinating in their depiction of capitalism at the roots of American culture — the greed wrapped around Los Angeles irrigation in Chinatown; the material excess of Xanadu in Citizen Kane; Daniel Plainview’s relentless quest for oil in There Will Be Blood — and these reflections are often ugly in their portrayal of the past mirroring our present.
The Furies is a peculiar Western. While the story barely strays from the struggle to maintain ownership of “The Furies,” a large tract of land in the New Mexico territory, the psychological thrust of this tale is more often applied to the genre of noir, something Anthony Mann certainly would have been familiar with. Well established in Hollywood after directing Raw Deal, Railroaded!, and T-Men, Mann here employs archetypically noir shadows and low angles to create a desert landscape as foreboding as rain-soaked alleys and foreboding docks. Presiding over this kingdom is T.C. Jeffords and his daughter Vance, a partnership far removed from the traditional roles inhabited by father and daughter; rather, one might say the family suffers from a severe case of “Daddy issues.”
As Vance, Barbara Stanwyck deftly balances charm (never an issue for Barbara) with fiery impudence. Her grit recalls her youthful resolve in Baby Face, working her way up the corporate ladder via the bedroom, but her down-to-earth nature, passion and quick-witted sparring with T.C. maintain sympathy for this turbulent gal, despite the havoc she soon wreaks. Mann marries character with landscape in Vance — she’s a creature of her surroundings, raw and instinctive, and unable to elevate anyone over her precious home, save her father. Unfortunately, Vance’s obsession has intertwined T.C. with The Furies in her heart, and not without reason, as her father has stipulated that the land will eventually pass to her —pending his approval of her husband — or his wife.
Evoking Scarlett O’Hara’s love for Tara, Vance’s adoration for The Furies earns both the love and indulgence of her father. Portrayed by Walter Huston (in his last screen role) as a white-haired, Lear-like aging monarch, T.C. intimidates all — including his barely-acknowledged son — except Vance, whose steely demeanor equals the old man’s. T.C. takes pride in his daughter’s behavior, declaring her a “she-fox”; this affection often extends into hints of incest, although their scandalous full kisses on the lips are barely a notch above the consequences that occur when each falls in love — outside the family.
Love ruins life for Vance and T.C., with the effects of outside forces attacking a stronghold. There is already prior romantic baggage regarding Vance’s friendship with Juan, a Mexican ranch squatter whom Vance has known since childhood. Juan reflects Vance’s love of the land in his determination to stay on it; Mann sympathizes with Juan and his family, in a poignant nod to the slow eradication of not only Mexicans, but Native Americans from the frontier as men much like T.C. laid claim for profit. Unlike T.C. or the man Vance does eventually fall for, Juan has no interest in possessing Vance or The Furies; he’d rather just be with them.
While Juan and his family irk T.C., Vance’s sexually charged attraction for Rip Darrow, a gambler detested by her father, initiates the self-destruction of the Jeffords. Love doesn’t entirely suit Vance; while she has moments of quite literally taking the reins from Darrow, her feelings weakens her stance, and initiates insecurity — she’s shamed by her lust, barely able to acknowledge that she enjoys it when Darrow hits her. This vulnerability morphs into bitter vengeance after T.C. literally pays off Darrow to make a fast exit (repugnantly, with Vance’s dowry), a power play that backfires when T.C. brings home another woman to The Furies, with the intention to re-marry (Judith Anderson, subtly portraying an aging gold-digger). The line between father and daughter quickly blurs, as instead the suggestion is of two former lovers furiously working to ruin one another.
The fallback to The Furies is that it comes this close to “going there,” only to be hindered by what must have been code censorship; the path of destruction is somehow pieced together again in the last reel, disappointing after the darkness preceding it. Despite the uneven tone, The Furies fascinates, for Stanwyck’s performance, and for the games of manipulation that both bind and end the Jeffords; while Vance does seem to have her way in the end, it remains unclear if she herself may be one of those vengeful goddesses, or instead, another hapless victim.
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