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 —
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.
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.
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…