The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)
Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952. Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner. But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson. His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones. His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick. But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.). And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.
Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology. The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco. He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight. The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it. There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations. It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though. The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.
At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival. The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child. That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better. He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves. At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey). When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence. And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t. Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.
Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland). She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson). Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000. More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance. Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side. Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men. Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.
Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount. She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.
T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more. T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs. So she buys his cattle with worthless scrip, and he’s still broke. Nevertheless, the two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver. As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).
All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit. On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes. The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck. The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well. Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man. At heart, she’s a cowgirl. Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”
Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo. Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here. The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.
1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns: Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this. They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period. This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky. The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee. Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman. Music is by Franz Waxman.
For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn. And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992). For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.