The Furies
d. Anthony Mann (1950)
The Criterion Collection

In Greek mythology, the Furies — three sisters named Alecto, Magaera, and Tisiphone — are the goddesses of revenge and retribution; rarely satisfied, they instead open up cycles of pain and suffering. Famously, these women hound Orestes after he has murdered his mother, Clytemnestra because she killed his father, Agamemnon. Agamemnon had his own issues that required retribution. Anthony Mann’s The Furies doesn’t take place in Ancient Greece; instead, we go to a New Mexico ranch — called The Furies — in the 1870s, but clearly the three sisters are still at work.

I had not seen The Furies until recently when The Criterion Collection released it on Blu-ray, upgrading their lavish DVD box set from 2008. I didn’t know what to expect — after all, in the same year Mann directed Winchester ’73, a much more famous western starring James Stewart — but I was excited because The Furies stars the always wonderful Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston in his last film role. When I finished I wondered why the film isn’t better known and talked about more often. Have you seen it? If not, get to it!

Before any action happens, T.C. Jeffords is introduced in overlaid script. He is the lord of The Furies, a man who “created kingdoms out of land and cattle . . . and ruled [his] empire like feudal lords.” A young man rides his horse up to the home at The Furies, sees a light on upstairs, and goes up to investigate. The camera takes us to the room before the man gets there. This is when we see Barbara Stanwyck, in a dead woman’s room wearing the dead woman’s dress. The dead woman is T.C. Jeffords’ wife, and Stanwyck is clearly moving into her place.

The young man enters the room, sees Stanwyck’s character, and says, “I might have known that no one but you would have bone enough to come into her room here.” The man, we find out, is Clay Jeffords, the son. Clay is about to marry, and Stanwyck is looking for the right gown. There is only a slight indication that she is the daughter, Vance Jeffords. The scene is so sinister — she goes and fondles a sharp set of sheers while she talks to her brother about his awful relationship with T.C. She is clearly the strong one, the one whom T.C. respects because he cannot beat her. Clearly he has tried.

Brother and sister talk about their father as if he were their boss as well as someone to take down. Yet when the man himself arrives, Vance shouts T.C. with affection and rushes to the stairs to greet the legend. There are some ambiguous emotions playing out on Vance’s face as she presents herself to T.C. wearing his wife’s gown.

The nature of their relationship gets stranger when T.C. asks Vance to scratch his sixth lumbar vertebrae, where he was once injured. Even though we know Vance and Clay are brothers, it’s still a bit of a shock when Vance calls T.C. father. Yes, we are dealing in the realm of the Furies of old.

Vance takes after her father. She is power hungry and yearns to run The Furies herself. She has no ill will toward her brother, even if she considers him a bit weak, but it’s probably because he has no desire to stand in her way. She’s not even interested in letting potential lovers in her life unless they can be a part of The Furies itself. There are notable problems with the two most likely candidates: Juan Herrera, one of Vance’s oldest friends, is a squatter. T.C. allows him to stay on The Furies only because of Vance’s friendship. Otherwise Juan would have been evicted or, more likely, murdered.

The other man, Rip Darrow, looks like a more suitable match on paper, but he’s got his own interests. His family once owned the Darrow Strip, a lovely bit of land that is now part of T.C. Jefford’s The Furies. He wants it back. While Vance thinks maybe it could work out, she doesn’t appreciate the violence in Rip’s cold, blatant desire to reclaim what he considers to be his own land.

But, in all honesty, neither Juan nor Rip are a match to Vance’s real nemesis, her real soulmate: T.C. himself. Their relationship is built on solid respect that comes from distrust and a mixture of affection and hatred. There will be plenty of reasons for those three old sisters to drive T.C. and Vance to destruction, much as they did centuries before, in an older land, when they attended ruin in the house of Agamemnon.

The Criterion Collection edition is a lovely release inside and out. It comes in a lovely cardboard slipcase that also includes the 1948 novel by Niven Busch (I love it when they can include the book too). In the Blu-ray sleeve there is another nice booklet that has an essay, “Mann of the Westerns,” by Robin Wood, and an interview with Anthony Mann by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol. Wood’s essay is very nice and looks at Mann’s other westerns as well as his — related here — interest in King Lear.

On the disc we get the 2008 audio commentary by film historian Jim Kitses. We also get:

-A 17-minute clip from a 1967 episode of The Movies where Mann is interviewed by critic Paul Mayersberg. At the time Mann was planning to adapt King Lear, but he died in April at 60. It’s great to hear some of his plans and consider, as I’m sure we’re meant to do, T.C. as a bit of a Lear character.

-A 17-minute interview with Nina Mann, filmed in 2008 when the DVD was released. This is her personal reflection of coming to know her father as an artist as well as a director. For some time she thought of her father’s directing as just his career, something he did to earn money, so it’s nice to hear a bit of her perspective as she talks about seeing his art.

-A 9-minute 1931 interview with Walter Huston. This pieces comes from the 1930s series Intimate Interviews, and it’s kind of a fun look not just at Huston but at the way this kind of press was handled then. The interview, Dorothy West, shows up at Huston’s home, and, after mistaking the proud housekeeper for his mother, goes on to interview the “reluctant” star.

-A new 30-minute interview with Imogen Sara Smith called “Radical Classicism.” While I liked each of the other supplements, this was my favorite. Smith goes into the topics I was most interested in; namely, the film’s relationship to Greek tragedy and to Shakespeare. She also looks at the visual conception of the film. This is a great feature, so if you have time for just one . . .

It goes without saying that I recommend this fantastic release, but I’ll reiterate anyway: this release is a great example of why I love The Criterion Collection so much.

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