12 July 2008

THE FURIES (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1950, US) - Resurrecting Forgotten American Cinema

The people at Criterion have done a splendid job in resurrecting this film from the ashes of forgotten American cinema, continuing their unrivalled reputation for DVD releases. Released in the 50s, Anthony Mann’s Freudian noir western, ‘The Furies’ was a precursor to the psychological approach Mann would increasingly apply later to the cycle of revisionist westerns starring James Stewart like ‘The Naked Spur’. Much of Mann’s early work has been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by his later road show epics like ‘El Cid’ and ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, but however much he was a brilliant manipulator of the widescreen composition, it is the low budget noirs in particular that he shot quickly that have really thrown a fresh light on a filmmaker who probably is one of the greatest American filmmakers to have worked in the studio system.

Mann’s body of work is rich, highly intelligent and has not dated in the slightest, and his repeated film noir collaborations with the master of light, John Alton, stand out as some of the best finest examples of the aesthetic possibilities of the noir genre. Films like ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘T-Men’ are masterpieces of economy, reinventing film language by revealing how low budgets and studio constraints could be subverted to deal with real social dilemmas by creating an entirely new set of codes and conventions. If one was to study any of the noirs Mann made before he shifted into the western genre, it is quite apparent how he had perfected the art of telling a story simply through the arrangement and positioning of the mise en scene, foregrounding the potential of the frame as a primal means of communicating with the audience spectator.

Unlike today, one of the benefits of working within a regimented system like the Hollywood studios was the ability to continue working on a number of different film projects, constantly developing and refining a particular specialism until one become somewhat of a skilled craftsman. Directors under contract regularly moved from one project to another with great confidence and dismay but they evolved rapidly into great artists, and such was the case with Anthony Mann who conquered each genre he ventured into. ‘The Furies’ was made in 1950, the same year as ‘Winchester 73’, Mann’s first of many collaborations with James Stewart, and though both films today are labelled as Freudian westerns, they collectively share a preoccupation with psychological themes that repeatedly provide the emotional thrust of the narrative.

‘The Furies’ sits alongside another 50s western melodrama, ‘Johnny Guitar’, that also approaches a traditionally male genre through a feminist perspective, challenging audience expectations by combining melodrama with western elements and shot in a bleakly noirish visual style. Famous for playing the twisted femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s classic noir, ‘Double Indemnity’, Barbara Stanwyck had a feisty reputation and she was one of the few stars to use her sexuality as a potent performance tool to subdue her male co-stars, all of whom were no match for her dynamic, bold and fiercely independent personality.

‘The Furies’ is a complex tale of a father and daughter relationship that is represented as a form of neurotic emotional attachment which is both fatalistic and sentimental. Walter Huston plays T.C Jeffords, a cattle baron and landowner, who has created an empire in the new American west with sheer will power and enterprise. T.C. presides over his empire in his ranch, ‘The Furies’, with great moral authority, impunity and indescribable prejudice against those who stand in his path of protecting his wealth and power. ‘The Furies’ is very much a western about one woman, Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) trying to find a place within an emerging American society that was overtly patriarchal and capitalist in its attitudes.

One of the more intriguing aspects of her character is the unrequited relationship that she has with a Mexican cowboy, Juan Herrera, whom T.C hangs in revenge for Vance’s enraged disfiguring of her new soon to be step mother. Though the sexual nature of this interracial relationship between Vance and Juan is only ever hinted at, it is quite obvious from the symbolism of the bread that the two ritually share with one another each time they meet, that women in this new vision of America were perhaps much more outward looking and progressive in their ideological attitudes. Vance’s destruction of the patriarchal figure of her father, T.C, is never taken its natural conclusion at the end, as Mann feels compelled to redeem the figure of T.C and let his death become a matter of embittered revenge.

Beautifully shot, well acted and a worthy addition to the western genre, ‘The Furies’ is a film that suggests superior film making was possible even in the most difficult of circumstances, using minimum resources to create cinema with a distinctly visual eye for landscapes.

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