The Furies is in some ways a precursor to Johnny Guitar, made four years later. Featuring a tenacious female lead who is or will be a major property owner, this time in Barbara Stanwyk as Vance (to Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny), and a band of misfit outsiders (here a relatively unscathed portrayal of Mexicans), The Furies is close to revisionist Western.
If what you mostly know Barbara Stanwyk from is Double Indemnity then The Furies is well worth the watch. She’s not just honeysuckle and fatalism here. She’s sharp-tongued and quick-witted, subtle and really, really knows how to deliver a line. Just listen to her talking with potential beau Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) about baking a cake. That pregnant pause in the middle of the line below is perfect. Then imagine how another actor might read it. Man, could that read differently, and far less engrossingly, on paper.
Vance is no-nonsense. Darrow slaps her in this film and she slaps him. She’s always ready with a one-liner, and at one point she fires a shot that skims his shoulder – this after asking him for his gun. It’s not just that she’s your “strong female lead” (which she is), but that she’s a character with purpose and with varied wants and desires. She’s well-rounded.
Wendell Corey is also fantastic. He’s deadly, seems to be able to drop his voice an extra octave whenever he needs to, and his character surprises frequently.
There’s something incestual in the father-daughter relationship (the father here – TC – played by Walter Huston in his last film role). Some of that has to do with how Anthony Mann films Stanwyk in these profile two-shots:
The first is she and Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), friends, though he wishes they were more. The second is she and her father. The third is with Rip. They’re all quite similar in terms of composition and all, in their own way, push ideas of affection, and even sexuality.
This is further enhanced later when TC asks an actual lover (and his to-be-wife) to scratch his “seventh lumbar.” That’s what he always asked Vance to do, essentially replacing her with a sexual partner.
Mann’s Westerns are frequently cited as “psychological.” Maybe that’s regarding the stilted family unit. Maybe it’s the desire for revenge. Maybe it’s the way the landscape and shot selection seem to evolve as the narrative does.
For example, here’s a critical shot. It’s a gorgeous one that takes place just after a violent moment and one that’s crucial to the father-daughter dynamic. Mann frames Stanwyk through a banister-
-and the camera dollies and cranes down with her as she walks, trancelike, towards the front door-
-eventually ending in this frame, with her own shadow looming large and ugly above her:
The shot is slow and gliding. Tension is derived from that wooden rail taking up so much of the frame and dwarfing Vance. The relative long take builds the pressure and, I think, works towards the oft-discussed psychology – it’s time to get inside the character’s head.
That strategy of putting things in the foreground seems to ramp up as the film progresses. Here’s a few shots from another very important scene (and my favorite in the film):
All of these images are stark, bold, graphic. They utilize a huge, enveloping foreground and characters that are stock-still (trancelike, again). As with the banister, the foreground elements jut out at us, intruding on what, to that point, had largely been flatter, or gentler images.
This shot, which just precedes those above is stunning. It’s a chiaroscuro Western vista. There’s enough light to hit some of those genre archetypes – cactus, horses, dust – but it’s mostly just darkness with a patch of light quickly moving towards us:
The Furies has a sequence towards the end that seems to predate Rio Bravo in the musical-Western genre. It feels cheesy for a film so controlled. It’s followed immediately by a scene of TC wrestling a bull (and winning). These two scenes are carefully calculated. They bring TC into mythological territory before he comes crashing down. It’s odd that he’s so celebrated – he’s relentless, holds grudges and is arrogant. He’s probably racist (or at least unsympathetic to a lower class). But he’s also the closest thing to the archetype of the macho American west. Mann’s Western celebrates that iconography while at the same time slightly revising it.