In one year, 1950, director Anthony Mann made four films: There was the crisp Farley Granger noir adventure "Side Street" plus three Westerns, including "Devil's Doorway," the rousing classic "Winchester '73" and "The Furies."
That's how you hustle, and for any filmmaker that's a damn good year.
That last title, "The Furies," refers to a sprawling southwestern ranch owned by the proud, controlling blowhard T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role, one year after winning an Oscar for "Treasure of the Sierra Madre.").
During the course of the film, the main characters refer to the estate often but it is never called "the ranch," "the property" or even "our land."
It's always called "The Furies," and as if to underscore the self-consciousness of the conceit, most of the people who say it seem to be resisting the urge to lick their lips immediately afterward.
But the film's three principal characters tote their own serious grudges, so while it's a clumsy subtext, the title could also refer to these agents of vengeance. Bastards, the set of them, but in the end sympathetic as well.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as Jeffords' daughter Vance, whose devotion to her father is second only to her fondness for standing in boots and jeans with her gloved fists pressed defiantly into her hips. That stance is basically how she lives and she lives to work the ranch (er ... I mean, The Furies). Surely that's not too much to ask, is it?
My facetiousness aside, this is a wonderful and frequently astonishing film. I kid because the movie is a breathless mix of influences and high emotions -- there's Sophocles here, and a lot of King Lear and sundry other Shakespeare. It's also Wellesian -- the Jeffords could be southwestern cousins to the Ambersons. But there are also hints of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," as well as other more serious but still-soapy fare in which doomed offspring stand beneath towering portraits of their parents.
Despite Mann's eventual seminal Westerns, however, "The Furies" seems more like Sam Fuller than, say, "The Naked Spur" or even "Man of the West" -- it has Fuller's grit and shrewdness and his tendency toward the baroque. That is, in part, because producer Hal Wallis didn't want to pay for Technicolor so -- highly unusual for a Western of this time -- he ordered the movie shot in black-and-white.
That decision absolutely sealed the film's greatness because Mann, with cinematographer Victor Milner, created a nightmarishly beautiful landscape as a backdrop. With some exceptions, the exteriors are largely shot day-for-night, even in cases where it's supposed to be daytime -- most of the scenes seem to exist in that alien space where the cattle drive began in "Red River." The sky is almost always stark and bleak and strewn with beautiful clouds and the desert is always somewhat shadowy and peopled with the silhouettes of riders. This lends the melodrama the air of isolation and purgatory; it transforms The Furies everyone wants so badly into a wasteland and makes "The Furies" something of a ghost story that is all the more unsettling because it's so lovely to look at.