One of the best westerns made and still holds up today is The Furies (1950, Paramount). In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies were avenging spirits whom act on behalf of the wronged dead. Portrayed as female, and often three in number, they have appeared in works by Virgil and Dante and can be seen as the inspiration for the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Director Anthony Mann's 1950 film was adapted from a Niven Busch's novel The Furies and the screenplay was by Charles Schnee. The Furies was the name given to the ranch run by the hard-driving and hard-living T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), and the sprawling landscape takes on the significance of these spirits. The land itself has spoken as if it were an entity, invoking the power of the elements themselves, controlling the lives of all that live within and orbit around its borders. In that way, these Furies is also a little like those other mythical women, the Fates, working their looms to weave the destiny of man. Anthony Mann's career was unusual because it developed in stages. He began his career as a director with the low-budget B-film Dr. Broadway (1942, Paramount), later on Mann directed film noirs such as Strange Impersonation (1946, Republic Pictures) starring Brenda Marshall and Raw Deal (1948, Eagle-Lion) starring Marsha Hunt and Claire Trevor, and then on to westerns (often with noir elements) in the 1950's. One of his three 1950's westerns, The Furies represents a particularly interesting and odd blend of genres: western, film noir, Gothic romance, woman's pictures and melodrama. The film's trappings are different than a regular western, though, with stronger psychological and metaphorical significance than your standard shoot 'em up. With its gender shake-ups, The Furies is to westerns what Leave Her to Heaven was to film noir.
In fact, the best part of The Furies is Barbara Stanwyck. There isn't a single actress in Hollywood -- then or now -- who could have played the part of Vance Jeffords so well. Stanwyck was an excellent horsewoman, and it showed in her many riding scenes, but she brings something more to the character than athletic skill. There's a common myth that old Hollywood movies only feature damsels in distress, when, in fact, they were filled by strong characters played by the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Even by those standards, Vance is exceptional. Stanwyck plays her as a strong independent woman, who is much more capable than her father T.C. in running the ranch, and she refuses to bend to the will of her father or any other man when it comes to making decisions about The Furies. Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck give two truly incandescent performances, one-upping each other and sparring with a passion usually reserved for Shakespeare, especially in both King Lear and Macbeth. They're both given beautifully crackling dialogue to savor and delight, everything, from their body language to the tone of their voices to the looks in their eyes seethes with a pent up fury.
Stanwyck makes for a more coolly subdued loose cannon here than she does as the literal femme fatale example in Double Indemnity (1944, Paramount). She's sharp, she's conflicted, and she's dangerous in that way that people who don't take crap from anybody always are. Stanwyck ascends rapidly to the top of the heap in so far as a female character in this particular genre are concerned. Vance is another jewel in the toughly sweet Stanwyck’s crown. Though she played an invalid right before this in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Paramount Pictures) for which she received her fourth and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination, Stanwyck wasn’t exactly a dainty little thing. In a time where men ruled both noir and the western genres, Stanwyck carved a niche for herself in both types of films, playing tough women of action, mirroring her own private life, much of which was spent on her beloved ranch named Marwyck located in Northridge, CA.
She was a powerful woman, in film and in real life, who explored, took risks and cut a strong, dashing figure alongside the gaggles of men she typically was surrounded by in her films. The arrivals of Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) create more sexual confusion and jealousy. The Furies would make a nifty double bill with Written on the Wind (1956, Universal-International), for we are now in the deepest, the darkest Douglas Sirk territory here. Based on a novel by Niven Busch, this film is almost as lurid as my favorite over-the-top western, Duel in the Sun, (1946, Selznick Releasing), also taken from a Busch novel. The two best scenes come back-to-back as Vance deflates Flo in a manner -- anticipating the coffee scene with Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953, Columbia Pictures), and when T. C. attacks Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) and his family especially his mother (Blanche Yurka). There's an amazing shot of T. C. and his men riding through a hole of light piercing the darkness demonstrates why Victor Milner's cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award.
Also starring was Gilbert Roland as Juan Herrera they are one of two Mexican families who continually to squat on the ranch, insisting on their rights as the indigenous people who first populate the area. Juan is Vance's life-long friend who becomes a weapon in her father's revenge against her; Blanche Yurka, the great Hungarian stage actress, plays his vengeful mama; even in this small role, we are reminded of her excellent performance as Madame DeFarge in the film A Tale of Two Cities (1935, MGM) years before. Just watch her intense eyes as she cackles and curses in Spanish as she pushes huge boulders off the mountain in her effort to prevent Huston and Stanwyck from gaining access to the family's mountain hideaway. When T.C. and his feral right-hand man El Tigre (Thomas Gomez) attack the Herrera home in an attempt to drive them and Vance off the Furies, the old man once again invokes the wrath of the land. He also creates another angry spirit that will need to be avenged, and it becomes an important component in his downfall.
Walter Huston, was a seasoned pro and already a legend at this point in his career. He was a chameleon like performer, able to play oddball characters like the prospector in the previous year's Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, Warner Brothers) for which he was awarded the Best Supporting Academy Award. In the The Furies he plays a patriarch that lives his life with wild, selfish abandonment, and his performance reflects this freedom that comes with that lifestyle. He's tough, charismatic, and quick to anger, but also nearly unflappable, always ready for the next challenge. His turn as T.C. has an added poignancy in that it was the actor's final bow in cinema. Walter Huston died on April 7, 1950 in Beverly Hills from an aortic aneurysm, two days after his 67th birthday.