“The Furies” – classic Western-noir – now on Criterion

Updated: Apr 24


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

In his final role, Walter Huston plays T.C. Jeffords, A New Mexico Territory cattle and land baron, and his power-hungry daughter Vance, played by Barbara Stanwyck.



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“THE FURIES: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”

Blu-ray; 1950; Not Rated

Best extra: “Radical Classicism” featurette with critic Imogen Sara Smith












FOR THREE decades, I’ve thought of myself as a Western film aficionado. I became fascinated with the genre after watching Anthony Mann’s striking “Winchester ‘73” (1950) on laserdisc in 1989. The 12-inch disc included a commentary interview with star James Stewart, who turned out to be a superstitious sort. His success there led him to wear the same tattered hat in all his Westerns.

Mann, who felt more at home on location than on a Hollywood backlot or soundstage, filmed “Winchester ‘73” in the rocky, desert area of Arizona. The story follows Lin McAdam (Stewart), a marksman who wins a high-powered rifle at a July 4th celebration in Dodge City. By day’s end, the Winchester is stolen by the runner-up, his shady half-brother (Stephen McNally), who killed their father. For the next 80 minutes, Stewart pursues the Winchester with a vengeance, until the climactic showdown on a cliff.

A few months before shooting “Winchester,” Mann was in the same territory near Tucson filming “The Furies,” a bigger-budgeted Western-noir for Paramount. It was released in 1950 between “Winchester ‘73” and another Mann western, “Devil’s Doorway” considered one of Hollywood’s first about the persecution of indigenous Americans by whites.


Somehow after watching hundreds of hours of Westerns in my Blu-ray and 4K collection, I’ve overlooked “The Furies.” It’s a hidden treasure starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” 1948; “All that Money Can Buy,” 1941; “Dodsworth,” 1936) in his final role.


(1) “The Furies” a Paramount Pictures production premiered in Tucson, Arizona on July 21, 1950. (2) The entrance to The Furies ranch, which spreads across four counties. (3) Vance’s brother Clay (John Bromfield) discovers her trying on their dead mother’s dress for his upcoming wedding. (4&5) T.C. arrives home from San Francisco, as Vance greets him still wearing her mother’s dress.






The late film critic Robin Woods writes in the enclosed 36-page booklet that “The Furies” was “part western, part woman’s melodrama, and part excursion into Freudian psychoanalytic material.” A strong and independent Stanwyck (“Double Indemnity,” 1944) plays Vance, daughter of New Mexico Territory land baron T.C. Jeffords (Huston). They deliver a captivating father-daughter showdown.

“Every time I watch ‘The Furies’ I see new things in it,” critic Imogen Sara Smith says in a recently recorded interview. “[There are] so many layers to the story, and many cleverly crafted details … it’s a reminder of when movies were our answer to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s Globe [productions].”

In the late 1940s, Mann had become one of Hollywood’s top B-film noir directors (“T-Men,” 1947; “Raw Deal,” 1948), but his psychological westerns of the 1950s – he made 11 of them, five with Stewart – turned Mann into an A-list director. Most of his westerns centered on tormented characters that become dark and vengeful. “The Furies” follows the escalating rivalry between Vance and her father, with deliberate overtones to “King Lear.” Mann was fascinated with “Lear,” and its theme appears in “The Man from Laramie” (1955) and “Man of the West” (1958), about powerful men losing control with age, Smith says. T.C. is the Lear character in “The Furies,” while Vance plays Lear’s three daughters – all rolled into one. “She’s power-hungry and schemes against her father,” says Smith. “But, seems to genuinely love him, even after being unjustly disinherited.”



(1) T.C. and his ranch boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez). (2) T.C. discovers a calf stuck in a mud trap set up by Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) and his brothers. (3&4) T.C. frees the calf and falls into the mud, while El Tigre, Mr. Reynolds (Albert Dekker) of the Old Anaheim Bank of San Francisco, and Vance are amused. (5) The Herrera brothers.






The film’s source is a 1948 novel by the same name, written by author Niven Busch (“Duel in the Sun”). The Criterion Collection box set includes the 300-page book (similar to Criterion’s 2014 packaging for Howard Hawks’ western, “Red River”). Busch, an East Coast transplant, said his goal was to bring a “greater level of realism and dimensionality to characters in westerns.” He’s responsible for bringing adult depth to the genre and connecting it with film noir.

Screenwriter Charles Schnee, who worked on “Red River” (1948) and also received an Oscar for Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), loved what he called “Big Westerns,” pushing the genre away from the formulaic plots of the 1930s and ‘40s and good guy vs. bad guy tropes to characters “struggling with larger forces,” Smith says.

Considered one of Hollywood’s best visual storytellers of the ‘50s, Mann uses the rugged landscape as a character, hooking his signature climax on and around a rocky mountaintop. “He constructs narratives, uses lighting, space, blocking and compositions,” Smith says. He stages violence with unexpected objects, as when Vance throws a pair of scissors at Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), a rich widow after her father’s hand.


“What is it that she gives you, T.C.? All your life you’ve had a craving to find a lady and a woman in the same body. That’s it isn’t it? Elegance and refinement. You found the lady in my mother, but she wasn’t woman enough for you was she?” — Vance Jeffords


(1) Vance and Juan have been friends since childhood. (2) Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambler and saloon owner arrives at Clay’s wedding reception. His father had been killed by T. C. (3) By the evening’s end Rip and Vance ride off to the fertile “Darrow Strip,” once owned by the Darrow family.






EXTRAS

The Blu-ray includes a carryover interview with Mann’s daughter Nina from the 2008 DVD edition. She remembers the endless months her father was away making movies. “His greatest love was shooting on location since his actors were more alive … and that reality fed their performances,” she says.

Not until a retrospect film festival in 1998, which showed Mann’s films back-to-back over four weekends, did she fully appreciate his craft. “I began to look at him as an artist and filmmaker, not just my dad,” she says. Looking at his work from beginning to end, she discovered several themes: “His hero was always in conflict and struggling internally.”

The disc includes a 15-minute British TV interview with Mann, made as he filmed “A Dandy in Aspic,” a Cold War spy thriller in London. Mann died of a heart attack during the 1967 production; star Laurence Harvey took over the director’s chair. Mann gives a retrospective of his career, starting as a screen test supervisor for David O. Selznick, overseeing actors’ tests for “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940). Extras also include a 1931 promo interview with Walter Huston, made to look like a documentary filmed poolside at his Hollywood home.

Another highlight is the commentary, with film historian Jim Kitses recorded for Criterion’s original DVD. He introduces the opening scene: “We’re not watching a typical horse opera … reinforced in the unhealthy setting of a dead mother’s bedroom, [we see] a shrine presided over by her own dominating, painted likeness in a room coated as repressively female in its drapes, curves and clutter. If anything [it reflects] a gothic melodrama or film noir of the period … Sibling tension surface in reference to the dead woman prompting daughter Barbara Stanwyck’s Vance to fondle a pair of phallic scissors.”


(1) T.C. heads off to San Francisco and leaves Vance to run the ranch and offers her a $50,000 dowry if she marries someone he approves. (2&3) T.C. returns with a fiancée, the widow Mrs. Florence Burnett (Judith Anderson), which makes Vance jealous...

... and violence irrupts.







VIDEO

The Criterion presentation uses the best source available – a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. It was mastered in 2K, because of the generational gap away from the original camera negative. Thousands of dirt particles and marks were removed, while splices and wrap frames were restored. Overall sharpness is very good. This is the best “The Furies” has ever looked for home viewing, showing plenty of natural film grain in every frame.

The overall grayscale is well balanced from highlights to shadows, with inky blacks, controlled highlights, and mid-tones. The arresting black-and-white cinematography by Victor Milner (“The Lady Eve”) was nominated for an Academy Award. Mann and Milner often composed scenes with multi-characters in one shot – and the actors played well off each other, avoiding back-and-forth cuts between characters. Overall, it gives the scene more breath and cohesiveness.

AUDIO

The original mono has been restored removing pops and hiss. Clear dialogue fills the center speaker, while composer Franz Waxman (“Sunset Blvd.,” “A Place in the Sun”) provides a stirring score. Subtitles are provided.

“The Furies” clearly expands the bounties of the genre, while providing Mann the steps required to become one of Hollywood’s premiere Western filmmakers.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch, producer


(1&2) The final act of “The Furies” becomes much more film noir-like with darker shadows. Vance goes to the Herrera family outpost, to warn Juan that T.C. is coming to drive his family off The Furies. (3&4) The Battle between the Herrera family and T.C.’s army. Juan’s mother (Blanche Yurke) takes aim. (5) The family surrenders.





(1) Prayers are lifted up before Juan receives punishment for stealing a Furies’ horse. (2&3) T.C.’s final drive with 20,000 head of cattle. (4) The payment for the livestock was not the type of cash T.C. expected. (5) Vance and Rip return to The Furies.



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