Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Few directors took so strongly to heart the mythical undertones of the western as Anthony Mann. His films are not nation-building legends (looking at you, John Ford), but tragic myths of cruelty and longing, more concerned with tearing apart individuals than building up communities. Sometimes they are the twilight of the gods (Man of the West), and other times tin-plated Passion plays (The Naked Spur), but they rarely explore a specifically American mythology. Dress up his characters in togas or robes, and the action could be transplanted two thousand years in the past without a hitch.
The Furies makes its connections to Greek lore fairly explicit—right there in the title, see—and it’s tempting to view the whole thing as a cattle-baron epic starring Zeus and Hera (if Zeus and Hera were a borderline incestuous father-daughter pair instead of bickering married couple, that is). Like Greek gods, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and his daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to exist on a different plane than the mere mortals that serve as pawns in their games. Both glow with an inhuman will. It’s there when a wrecked T.C. asks his bride for money, and in the face of rejection still drinks a toast to her—and means it. It’s there when a heartbroken Vance cries about losing the only man who ever hit her, and you see that she makes no distinctions between violence and love.
Out on the plains of New Mexico in 1870, perhaps such distinctions are a hopeless luxury, better suited to well-heeled eastern types than gruff cattlemen (and women). T.C. has built up his ranch from nothing but blood, sweat and tears—just not necessarily his own. Vance preens for daddy like a little princess, but she’s perfectly willing to play rough as well. Seemingly just to irritate T.C., she courts the revenge-seeking son of one of her father’s victims, although it later occurs to her to fall in love with the man. She willfully defies her father whenever it suits her, which is about every five minutes.
These being intemperate folk, defiance can take some rather extravagant forms. T.C. threatens his daughter’s position on the farm by bringing home a Washington-bred fiancé, a society dame given to genteel political maneuvering. When the wicked stepmother dares to come between daughter and daddy dearest, the fairytale turns more Grimm than Disney, and suddenly the baffled matron has a pair of scissors stuck in her face.
Understandably, T.C. is annoyed at the permanent disfiguration of his bride, but he’s also been blind to how Vance’s efforts are the only thing keeping the ranch afloat despite his profligate ways. The man has handed out so many IOUs they’ve become a currency in the county (all sporting an image of Vance, as if T.C. were slowly spending away his daughter’s love for him). One bad turn deserves another, so T.C. hangs Vance’s only friend, as well as the only decent man who ever loved her—a Mexican squatter named Juan who has survived on the land thanks only to Vance’s influence over her father.
The hanging is a thing of beauty, a shadow play lit only by a thin sliver of light between ground and sky (the film may not be a showcase for the masterful use of landscape that would mark Mann’s later westerns, but it’s a gorgeous example of western noir). The scene is pure theatre, clearly staged to humble Vance. But she refuses to give in, and sets about to destroying her father by yanking the ranch right out from under him.
Given how casually T.C. courts disaster, you start to think he wants his daughter to take away the ranch. He approaches each calamity with a weary shrug and a sigh, as if he were finally about to be crushed, but he always walks away with a skip and a grin—failure is the man’s greatest source of energy, apparently (Huston performs some masterful emotional sleight-of-hand in conveying these shifting moods). But the daughter is no less perverse, and she seems to understand on some level that to defy her father is to prove her love (she treats his dying wish like a private joke between the two, cheerfully ignoring it). In Vance, T.C. has very carefully crafted the engine of his defeat, and it may be his greatest triumph. What would have happened had he survived on the ranch? Poverty, decline, stagnation. There is no crueler fate for a god than to become a mere man.