The Furies: Mann of the Western

<i>The Furies:</i> Mann of the Western

The year 1950 marked a turning point in Anthony Mann’s career, the moment when he passed from the series of brilliant film-noir B movies that had established him to the westerns that made him a major figure. Mann released three westerns that year, the definitive one clearly being Winchester ’73, his first generically proper western, taken over from Fritz Lang and starring James Stewart (the beginning of one of the most remarkable and sustained creative relationships in the history of Hollywood). Made before Winchester ’73 but released later in the year, the other two films were highly untypical westerns: Devil’s Doorway, which centered on the persecution of an American Indian and starred Robert Taylor, and The Furies, a bigger-budgeted hybrid of a film with even more potentially explosive material. Part western, part woman’s melodrama, part excursion into Freudian psychoanalytic material that must surely have posed problems for the ever-alert censors, The Furies is a complex and offbeat anomaly. All of Mann’s westerns—unlike, for example, John Ford’s—suggest deep psychological disturbance, but those currents never again manifest themselves as blatantly and explicitly as they do in The Furies. Perhaps because of this unusual equation, the film is not a complete success (its ending, especially, where so many complicated issues have somehow to be resolved, is, to say the least, problematic), but its failures actually add to its fascination, the narrative working itself to a point where only the most drastic resolution, beyond the conventions of the western genre, seems possible.

I want here to provide a context for the film before examining it more closely, to discuss some of the characteristics of Mann’s long and multifaceted career that inform The Furies and contribute to its complexities: the psychologically intense nature of all his westerns, strongly marked by his choice and treatment of landscape; his obses­sive desire to make a western based on the plot of King Lear, of which The Furies appears to be the first practical manifestation; and the fact that it is the only film of his maturity centered on a woman, affecting his representation of women in his later westerns.

Mann and the Mountains

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there . . . ”

Gerard Manley Hopkins

As a step toward defining Mann’s particular achievement within the western genre, one may place his work beside that of its acknowledged master, John Ford. Ford’s westerns, rooted in that uneasy terrain where history dissolves into mythology, are consistently concerned with American ideology: the newly founded and fought-for primitive and idealized America celebrated (though with great emphasis on pain, loss, and bloodshed) in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939); the corrupted, divided, and fallen America of Stagecoach (1939); and later, in his disillusionment, the America represented by the weary and largely ineffectual cavalry of Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Mann’s westerns, on the other hand, show little interest in history or in mythology; they are grounded in a fallen world of existential struggle in which the villains often become the heroes’ dark shadows. Typically, when he shoots down his enemy, the Mann hero experiences not triumph but exhaustion, almost prostration, as if he had forfeited a part of himself, his manhood.

Mountains figure prominently in the westerns of both Ford and Mann, but to quite opposite signification. Ford’s mountains (Monument Valley, his favorite shooting location) are stately and picturesque, impossible to climb, their grandeur dignifying and ennobling the cavalry troops that pass by them, dwarfed but never losing poise and control. When a mountain appears in a Mann western, it is never picturesque; his mountains are barren rock, not even safe cover, with bullets ricocheting in every direction. You know at once that his heroes and his villains will, sooner or later, have to struggle up them, that there will be pain, death, and desperation. And in most instances, the struggle will not merely be between good guys and bad guys. Typically, Mann’s heroes (most frequently embodied by Stewart) are not noble defenders of a faith but heavily compromised individuals, anguished, torn by personal issues of revenge, trying to live down a troubled and possibly criminal past, struggling against their inner violence. The mountains are internalized in the psychology of the characters.

The King

Before his move into his sixties widescreen epics (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire), Mann made what he might well have seen as his farewell to the western, his long-cogitated adaptation of King Lear, called Man of the West (1958); yet one gathers from reports that he was still unsatisfied and planning a more thorough, detailed, and faithful version when he died. It was to be called, simply, The King. There appears to be no record of when the obsession began and to what extent it developed, influencing the movement from one film to the next: With Walter Huston in The Furies? Donald Crisp in The Man from Laramie (1955)? These two, and Lee J. Cobb in Man of the West, can be seen, to varying degrees, as Lear figures. Huston’s connection to Lear is the most tenuous, because the character is Lear, as it were, in isolation: none of the surrounding characters (taken from Niven Busch’s novel) fit those of Shakespeare’s play to any marked degree (Barbara Stanwyck, though willing to save him from destitution, is no Cordelia!). We have, however, in Huston much of the king himself: his initial sense of total power, his self-delusion, his bluster, his rages, his impotence, his reluctance to face reality.

The relationship of The Man from Laramie to Shakespeare’s play is perhaps not immediately obvious, yet one can trace many parallels here, not merely in Crisp’s proud, dogmatic ranch-owner character but in the plot and action, which involves two sons, one adopted and reliable only to a point (Arthur Kennedy), the other ruthless, spoiled, and borderline psychotic (Alex Nicol), who cheat and betray him. But this Lear also goes blind, like the Duke of Gloucester, and the actual blinding of Gloucester from the play is then transferred, unmistakably, to the shooting at point-blank range of James Stewart’s gun hand by the psychotic son (the scene follows Shakespeare closely: the hand is held in place by “servants”/ranch hands, who are then appalled at what they have been forced to do; as Nicol turns his back and walks away, two of them help Stewart to his horse, as Gloucester was aided by sympathetic servants). Crisp’s Lear also has his faithful Cordelia, here a middle-aged ranchwoman (Aline MacMahon) who leads him away at the end, blind and dependent, humbled.

Man of the West, arguably the greatest of Mann’s westerns, is a far more obvious version of Lear, but its Lear-ness is due primarily to the casting of Cobb, with that blustering, earthshaking overacting that can get on one’s nerves but is perfectly suited to Lear. Instead of three daughters, he has three sons, one steady, committed, and responsible (obviously Cordelia), the other two not evil but merely stupid, swaggering, and ultimately useless. It’s very explicitly a film about the end of the Old West: Gary Cooper, on his way to hire a schoolteacher for the new town of Good Hope and stranded when the train is attacked, meets up with his former gang, headed by Cobb/Lear, who welcomes him home as his favorite son (a sort of failed Cordelia). The gang is planning a last major coup, the robbing of a bank, and Cooper is forced to kill them all, including Cobb, in a spectacular final confrontation. It’s Lear, unmistakably, but without most of Shakespeare’s plot.

Women in the Westerns

In the previous decade, Mann had spent his apprenticeship years direct­ing low-budget B movies with titles like Moonlight in Havana (1942), My Best Gal (1944), and The Bamboo Blonde (1946), before he found his first appro­priate niche in film noir, with a series of low-budget masterpieces including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949). Then, in 1950, he was offered his first big-budget project, The Furies, adapted from a popular novel, with major stars (Stanwyck, Huston)—a curious hybrid, as I’ve said, part western, part woman’s melodrama. Perhaps not entirely compatible material, but in any case, he rose to the occasion.

Although he is generally thought of as a “man’s director,” Mann’s sensitivity to women was always evident—think, for instance, of the marvelous performance he gets from Claire Trevor in Raw Deal and those he would later get from June Allyson in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Strategic Air Command (1955). The roles for women in westerns and film noirs are clearly limited (rancher’s daughter/saloon entertainer, cop’s supportive wife/gangster’s moll). Yet Mann’s women are never colorless ninnies. In his westerns particularly, they are strong, outspoken, and active, although inevitably tied to domesticity, the home his heroes long for and sometimes achieve in the films’ somewhat perfunctory last five minutes. Stanwyck was, of course, quite another matter. By the time in her career when she was making The Furies, she scarcely needed a director, and despite Huston’s splendid quasi Lear, she is the film’s center, a miscast Wendell Corey giving little challenge. She was an actress always ready to take risks, in roles others would have shrunk from, here portraying a woman in a father-daughter relationship verging on the incestuous, with a ruthlessness and drive that do not flinch at using violence.

Mann and The Furies

But if The Furies belongs in large part to Stanwyck, it is, of course, equally Mann’s. His feeling for composition (both interiors and exteriors) shows his strength already fully developed, the film culminating in what was to become his signature climax: the battle on and around a mountain of inhospitable rocks. And the fiery psychological subject matter throughout, though uniquely heightened and central, would also come to define him.

The opening scene of The Furies establishes, at once boldly and complexly, the fundamental dramatic tensions on which the entire film hinges. It shows the return home of T. C. Jeffords (Huston), ostensibly for his son’s wedding, in which it is clear he has little interest. The son appears first, a single figure on a horse at night, puzzled by a light pouring from an upstairs window. It is the room, become a shrine, of the mother, left exactly as it was when she died, its sacred accoutrements never to be disturbed. But it is now, suddenly, very much occupied by T. C.’s daughter, Vance (Stanwyck), who has also blasphemously appropriated the mother’s dress and, as her brother watches her, jewels. At her brother’s weak protest (“You know he’s been particular about keeping her room same as before she died”), she turns from him to the dressing table. “Oh, Mother had everything,” she says as she touches a large pair of scissors, manipulating and stroking the blades. Every move intensifies her fear of any rival, even dead, and in becoming her mother, she is annihilating her. Much later in the film, she will use the scissors as a weapon against a subsequent rival (Judith Anderson).

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