Made furious by The Furies

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean weighs in on a film last heard from in Anthony Mann Week — and she makes points about an aspect of the movie I think completely neglected to mention. Because of the nature of the questions discussed, the piece is unavoidably spoiler-heavy –

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The Furies is one of three westerns made by Anthony Mann for different studios that were released in 1950. Together with Winchester 73 (his first collaboration with James Stewart) and The Devil’s Doorway, this period marks his transition from maker of B pictures to big budget features. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Niven Busch, author of Duel in the Sun, who also wrote the screenplay for Pursued, another noirish western with Freudian undertones.

Walter Huston made his last screen appearance in The Furies. He died in April 1950 at the age of 67 and did not live to see its release. It was my intention to write about Huston’s performance (and, believe me, there’s plenty of meat on that bone), but the film contains a scene that I found so shocking, it’s been bothering me ever since and left me with lots of questions.

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Here’s how the scene comes about.

Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is the daughter of TC Jeffords (Walter Huston), a New Mexico cattle baron, owner of The Furies ranch. On the land that he has acquired is a long-established Mexican community. Juan, eldest son of the Herrera family (Gilbert Roland), has been friends with Vance since childhood and is in love with her. Their scenes together are relaxed and affectionate and therefore in sharp contrast to the grand guignol on display elsewhere.

There are heavy hints of incest in the relationship between Vance and TC and when two outsiders, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambler with a grudge against TC whom Vance falls for, and Flo (Judith Anderson), the wealthy widow TC plans to marry, appear on the scene, the furies are truly unleashed.

Vance suffers a double defeat. Her advances to Rip end in rejection and humiliation and when she learns of TC’s impending marriage, which will jeopardise her inheritance, she attacks Flo with scissors, permanently disfiguring her. In revenge, TC carries out his plan to evict the Mexicans then, despite having promised the Herreras immunity, orders the hanging of Juan for horse stealing, the slimmest of pretexts.

Vance refuses to demean herself by begging for his life, and Juan calmly submits to his fate. This casual killing of the only honourable and sympathetic character is quite horrible, and the matter of fact way in which it’s presented only makes it worse. I watched with mounting disbelief as Juan’s mother and two brothers pray with him and then accompany him to the scaffold without a murmur of protest. He removes his hat, lowers his head, and the noose is placed around his neck.

Maybe it’s just a testament to Mann’s skill as a filmmaker, and the power of the writing, that this has so effectively got under my skin, but here’s what I want to know.

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Why do I find this so much more disturbing than scenes of execution in other westerns? I had confidently predicted an outcome whereby Vance would choose the loving, principled Juan over the devious Rip, (well, who wouldn’t go for Gilbert Roland rather than Wendell Corey?) and they would gallop away from The Furies together, but it’s not just that my romantic expectations are overturned by Juan’s death.

I am appalled by Vance’s inaction. Why won’t she plead for Juan’s life? And equally appalled by his passivity. Why doesn’t he fight back? Admittedly, he is avenged in the closing scene by his mother, who shoots TC in the back, but this is small recompense for the brutal nature of his death.

Is it an indication of racial sensibilities of the time? Did social attitudes dictate that Vance must marry Rip, as she does in the end, however morally compromised he may be? Was it not possible for a young, attractive, white woman to be seen forming a romantic attachment to a Mexican? Surely Gilbert must have played non-white characters in other films who got the girl?

Or is it, as my partner says, social realism in that when people sense resistance is futile, as occurred many times in WW2, they go to their deaths like lambs?

I have no answers myself, but all this left me wondering how did – or, indeed, do – actors feel when playing parts where their ethnicity determines the outcome. Did they feel humiliated? Or did they just shrug and bank the money?

***

Coming soon to The Chiseler: a letter by actor Clarence Muse that addresses, in a way, that very question…

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11 Responses to “Made furious by The Furies”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I enjoyed this piece a lot and I think it raises some important ethical questions about the attitudes of Hollywood (and even society in general) around the time this film was made. For me, however, the clue lies in the title THE FURIES – the mythological figures who pursue Orestes and other characters of Greek tragedy!

    Tragedy seems to be a genre whose characters embrace their fate (however ghastly it may be) rather than fighting against it, as they would in a drama of our own time. The reactions of Barbara Stanwyck, Gilbert Roland and his family can be seen as fitting into this tradition…and Niven Busch was certainly a grandiose enough writer to attempt a classical tragedy in a Wild West setting.

    That being said, I’m not suggesting for a moment that THE FURIES actually works as such. It strikes me as a confused – and confusing – film on many levels. Lacking both the emotional weight of a Greek drama and the satisfying moral certainties of a traditional Western, all it can do is fail in bizarre and fascinating ways.

    Still, I enjoy it as a forerunner of the much better FORTY GUNS by Samuel Fuller – in which Barbara Stanwyck truly IS the roughest, toughest, meanest, scariest hombre in the whole of the Wild West! A woman who makes John Wayne look like Liberace, and then some. I think of THE FURIES less as a film than as a preview of coming attractions. Does that help at all?

  2. While Mann certainly made films that did work, he’s something of a specialist in failing upwards. He builds in sequences of such traumatic power that they can’t be resolved neatly at the end, or else they can but the film refuses to do so. Man of the West and Men in War rush towards conventional endings, but can never quite arrive there because of all that’s gone before.

    That execution is incredibly powerful in its staging — it would be hard for the film to recover even if the sequence were indifferent, but the drama of it actually makes the problem more intense.

  3. David W, I totally accept your point about Greek tragedy. I haven’t seen FORTY GUNS but it’s on my wishlist

    David C, “Failing upwards” is such a great phrase.

    I just wanted to show how you can sit down with the intention of casting a cool, analytical eye over a film and then find yourself completely hijacked by emotion. Isn’t that the essence of cinema, though – just like Pauline Kael says in ‘Reeling’?

    And I had so much to add about the great roles for women in this film – not just Stanwyck and Anderson, but Beulah Bondi and Blanche Yurka too (Gertrude to Barrymore’s Hamlet!) – but I couldn’t get past that execution scene.

  4. Your article makes a great point about how deeply upsetting this scene is — and probably even more so because Mann doesn’t milk it for pathos, it’s played quite cold-bloodedly. Its lack of overwrought emotion makes it seem more terribly ‘real,’ somehow; you sense that this is actually how these characters would behave. Much of the rest of the film is overheated melodrama, which makes the hanging scene stand out ever more. Mann seems to be standing back from the action he’s depicting, which puts the Huston and Stanwyck characters a blinding moral light –they are truly unpleasant, amoral characters, not deserving of audience involvement.

    I wonder if the scene was also meant to be read in a historical context, for its own time – did Mann mean it as an allusion to the events of the era? Did he choose to stage it that way because he wanted audiences to read in in a certain topical way?

  5. I think Mann may have had some liberal feelings and intended some kind of anti-lynching effect, but not in the manner of The Ox-Bow Incident. He tends to get excited by violence and cruelty and it’s not easy to separate his sadistic tendencies from his other instincts as storyteller. Here, I think he saw the chance to strongly affect the viewer, and he just hit as hard as he could.

  6. The answer to the question is racism.

    Period.

  7. It’s worth remembering that in the year before THE FURIES Mann made BORDER INCIDENT, which is about the exploitation of Mexican migrant workers in the Southwest and depicts the abuse in pretty hair-raising ways as well.

  8. The problems afflicting the liberal-minded commercial filmmaker must have been legion: you try to alert the audience to these social issues, and you wind up portraying all your Mexican characters as victims or criminals. Genre conventions don’t usually help.

  9. Well, BORDER INCIDENT does feature as the protagonist an undercover Mexican federal agent — played by Ricardo Montalban, no less.

  10. Todd Herman Says:

    It’s history–history and a prediction . The ranch being the U.S. The U.S. annexed Texas; symbolically then, the Herreras are kicked off their land. The book was written in 1948 when the U.S. was aquiring war debt –i.e. writing lots of I.O.U.’s. What better way for N.Y. sophisticate, Niven Busch, to express displeasure with out national debt–write an alegorical novel and portray the consequences: loose your country to you creditors. So what could the fertile Darrow strip represent? I can only guess!

  11. Good insights!

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