• The Furies: Mann of the Western

    By Robin Wood


    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 films 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 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 of 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.

    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; the corrupted, divided, and fallen America of Stagecoach; and later, in his disillusionment, the America represented by the weary and largely ineffectual cavalry of Cheyenne Autumn. 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.

    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, Man of the West; 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? 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, the 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.


    A decade and a half earlier, Mann had spent his apprenticeship years directing low-budget B movies with titles like Moonlight in Havana, My Best Gal, and The Bamboo Blonde, before he found his first appropriate niche in film noir, with a series of low-budget masterpieces, including T-Men, Raw Deal, and Border Incident. 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 was later to get from June Allyson in The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. The roles for women in westerns and film noirs are clearly limited (cop’s supportive wife/gangster’s moll, rancher’s daughter/saloon entertainer). 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 does not flinch at using violence.


    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).

    The figure we are presented with here is clearly a complicated one. Her commitment to her father is to be taken as genuine, yet she also wants to use him—to dominate and exploit him, to gain power for herself. That T. C. is a Lear figure is clear from his first appearance: supremely confident, assured of the fidelity and near adoration of his servants, a foolish, boisterous, dominating old man continuously manufacturing his own comeuppance. This, in its turn, makes of his daughter the seemingly impossible double figure: Cordelia and Goneril combined into one, simultaneously supporting and insidiously exploiting him, sincere yet treacherous, a woman in love with her father but who also covets the power that women have traditionally been denied. It seems, in retrospect, quite impossible that such explosive material should have passed the censors unscathed.

    Further challenging the censors, Mann’s films also repeatedly display a sympathy for ethnic groups and their frequently insulting marginalization in Hollywood films. Devil’s Doorway remains one of the early (and arguably one of the best and most uncompromising) Hollywood films about the persecution of an Indian by whites, and the forceful and disturbing Border Incident treats Mexicans with unusual respect. (It’s a trait Mann shared with Niven Busch, whose Duel in the Sun was filmed by King Vidor four years before The Furies.) One of the most admirable aspects of The Furies is its positive portrayal of the Mexicans, and particularly of the character Juan, played by Gilbert Roland, who is actually permitted a tentative romance with Vance. The resentment of the Mexican servants towardthe monstrous T. C., already suggested in the opening sequences, remains a consistent motif throughout the film, culminating in Blanche Yurka’s climactic act.

    The scenario offers Vance the choice of three men: her father, Juan, and Rip Darrow (Corey), gambler and businessman. The problems of censorship and ethnicity seem pertinent here: Mann presents Juan as the most sincere, most honorable and upright of the three; he and Vance are permitted to engage in the traditional Mexican sharing of bread, and even to kiss (“the kiss of a good friend,” as Juan tells her, with a beautifully sly touch of irony, as he is about to be hanged). If their relationship had been allowed to develop during the film’s course, we would have had a different and more satisfying work. One wonders whether Mann wanted this, his heroine’s moral and spiritual salvation being at stake. But that kind of ending would not have been permissible; it remains an unfulfilled potential, along with the other charged subject matter Mann introduces but ultimately must retreat from.

    The Furies is so nearly a great movie, though, that one needs to account carefully for its weaknesses. Two scenes of violence seem crucial from the point of view of audience response: the permanent disfiguring of Mrs. Florence Burnett (a remarkably subtle and complex performance by Anderson, which gives the character considerable audience sympathy) and Juan’s fate, Vance responsible for the former, T. C. for the latter. Both of the film’s leading characters are thereby discredited (Vance’s action at least is spontaneous rather than cold-blooded, but Anderson’s subsequent scenes underline its grotesqueness). The final twenty minutes attempt, quite brazenly, to reinstate and purify both: T. C. is romanticized and sentimentalized as a “grand old man” by proving that he can still pull down a bull single-handedly, and he even gets a song celebrating his greatness—the “redemption” of the irredeemable. Vance is softened and sweetened, abruptly becoming the “good woman” so that she can accept the generally obnoxious Darrow (also softened and sentimentalized). But the film’s earlier energy, complexity, and audacity should be allowed to atone for this last attempt at recuperation.


    Robin Wood has finally retired from teaching and intends to spend the remainder of his life enjoying himself with movies, operas, and concerts on DVD, while writing books and articles on Michael Haneke, Tsai Ming-liang, Satyajit Ray, and others, and spending a happy old age with his partner Richard Lippe and their cats.

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