A Hatred That IS, A World That IS

The Furies (1950)

The Criterion Collection

I think of sunlight when I think of Westerns.

I think of blue skies, wide open spaces, Monument Valley in the midst of a desert, mountains and trees forming arenas for great deeds. The climaxes of so many genre classics—The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s corpus, even The Wild Bunch—take place in a daytime where there’s nothing to hide, nothing to obscure action and expression. We know the stakes. We’ve chosen sides. We see clearly.

What strikes me about The Furies (1950) is that it’s shrouded in darkness.

The promise, the classic image of the West, is replaced by either night shots where the Earth and its forms—thanks to Victor Milner’s cinematography—feel shrouded in the unknown, or by rococo interiors, dimly lit and filled with maximalist decoration to the point where everyone sitting down makes sense; there’s nowhere to move.

And when a true wide-angle daytime shot finally comes, there’s a low horizon line and cloud cover seemingly inches above the land. Forget an expansive frontier.

This is oppressive.

This leaves no room for transformation, for people to become anything else but what they are.

This has a point.

 Near the end of his life, in an interview for Sight and Sound, director Anthony Mann 1 revealed his deeply mixed feelings about The Furies, which he made in 1950, working with screenwriter Charles Schnee to adapt Niven Busch’s novel in accordance with the typically high production value Hal Wallis brought to the table. In Mann’s words, “it had marvelous characters, interesting notices, but it failed because nobody in it cared about anything—they were all rudderless, rootless, and haters.”

“Haters.” A telling word. A word baked into the title. “The Furies” is not only the name of the ranch owned by Temple Caddy “T.C.” Jeffords (Walter Huston) but also a trinity of goddesses depicted by Virgil and Dante as the incarnations of endless anger, jealous rage, and vengeful destruction. Similarly, the film creates triangles of characters antagonizing each other, for all of whom the qualities of the Furies are essential.

I use that word deliberately. During the opening sequence, there’s some seemingly comic exposition in which T.C. introduces visiting banker Mr. Anaheim to his family and staff. He gleefully includes his financial advisor Scotty Hyslip (Wallace Ford), a convicted embezzler, and his security chief El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), a hero of the Mexican Revolution until he “justly hung” a man, found he had a taste for it—and got kicked out of the country because the people “took just so many hangings.” In the moment, it’s adding color to these supporting characters. But by the end, Scotty will embezzle again, and El Tigre will hang another man.

This almost-invisible set-up and payoff speaks to what Mann and Busch accomplish in The Furies. They are interested in exploring the unchanging essences of people and their time and place, and what happens when events conspire to puncture the self—enough to change how people act, feel, and simply live. This attitude results in a highly original perspective that makes The Furies one of the greatest Westerns ever committed to celluloid.

And to understand why, one must begin by understanding Vance Jeffords, a Fury herself who ushers in the darkness.

Barbara Stanwyck at first glance plays Vance Jeffords as a cousin to some of her other great creations—the ones ruled by a calculating iciness which can momentarily slip: say, Phyllis Dietrichson and Martha Ivers. Vance, however, is more wound up by The Furies; both the land she spends most of the film showing more love for than anything, and the beings themselves in their anger, rage, and drive to destroy.

Vance’s love for The Furies borders on single-minded obsession, and it ties into her position in the life of T.C.. Her first scene sees her in the immaculately preserved bedroom of her late mother, a woman whose life of jewels, material possessions, and solitude she never understood. In her next breath she proudly declares that she never once let T.C. beat her. It doesn’t matter if the beating is in the sense of competition or physical violence: she is a strong, equal partner to her father, the household’s one source of female power.

For the rest of the movie, Vance is driven by the birthright she possesses to one day be in charge of her relationship to T.C., and whoever or whatever gets in her way becomes the target of her wrath. When conflicts arise, Vance’s rage causes true destruction. But unusually and as it turns out crucially, the actions she takes out of anger are what allow her to succeed, and the most drastic events are set in motion by her trying to act out of kindness.

Stanwyck nails Vance’s persona with a combination of assertive domination and sly superiority, especially when she speaks. These traits are in line with other Western heroes, but Vance is not acting against outlaws, corrupt officials, or other figures of menace. Her position is one of unusual vitality within a hitherto stable subset of society with no real villains. Vance herself could come across as the villain if she wasn’t coded as the object of our identification; she spends many important scenes clad in stereotypically antagonistic black. When she wears white, usually in the form of ruffled dresses accompanied by jewelry, she looks distinctly out of place.

The last defining bit of Vance’s character comes from her foil: her brother, Clay (John Bromfield). A handsome, physically imposing man whom anyone could imagine as a protagonist, Clay is actually the most ineffectual of figures. He isn’t weak; he’s comfortable in his own skin and one of the few who can tell Vance the unvarnished truth. But he passively accepts that he will never inherit The Furies, and his easygoingness drives Vance and T.C. to scorn. Once he marries another landowner’s daughter, with her own wealth, he disappears completely. The events of the story move beyond him.

Those events are driven by Vance’s involvement in three triangular relationships and the decisive action she takes in the conflicts that emerge. Two set her against pairs of characters representing the conflicting forces of light and darkness/interiority.

The third is an overlapping of the other two, in which she is either allied with or antagonizing the men she wants to keep closest to her heart, and in which her active part as a Fury complicates matters.

 The Sweep of History: Vance, T.C., and Florence

The oft-mentioned T.C. Jeffords is an exuberant figure, the sort who “conquered” the West by having the energy and wherewithal to tame the land and supplant anyone else who wanted it—or who may have been living there. There’s a continuity in T.C.’s mastery of The Furies and his living out the grand tropes of Western action. T.C. rescues a calf from quicksand, charges into piT.C.hed battles, and in the climactic cattle roundup (for at this point, what Western worth its salt wouldn’t have a cattle roundup?) wrestles a bull to the ground. This superhuman will, thanks to Huston’s sparkling charm, makes T.C. a figure almost worth rooting for.

From the start, though, when the grandiose portrait of its owner is the only illuminated object in the dark house, T.C. is presented as someone in opposition to everything around him. He runs The Furies as a feudal baron to whom everyone in his orbit should be grateful for his largesse. This goes beyond both his brain trust of people skilled in serving the few at the expense of the many, and his own system of law and order operating outside the bounds of everyone else’s.

The film’s undercurrent to its emotional throughlines is the collision of T.C.’s world with the more “civilized” American society that had worked its way west—and with it, capitalism. From the start, the ranch needs money. Whoever has the most money will control it. And T.C. knows he must deal with this commercial world but doesn’t like it.

Early on, as T.C. is trying to secure a loan from Mr. Anaheim, Clay lets it slip that The Furies issues its own money, circulating throughout the west, called T.C.s. On the one hand, T.C. is furious this unwanted revelation endangers his dealings. On the other hand, he takes pride in his bills which depict “a lulu of a girl riding a bull” and carry the motto “Amicus Humani Generis … six more letters than E Pluribus Unum!” With that self-aggrandizing, longer slogan, T.C. sets himself as someone above America. Charmingly rebellious, but a would-be dictator. A person to never fully trust.

Vance, with her own ambitions of equal magnitude, adopts many of her father’s characteristics, including a maverick head for business and standoffishness. Thus she is unprepared for the intrusion, halfway through the movie, of Florence Burnett (Dame Judith Anderson as a true grand dame).

T.C. returns from a trip to San Francisco with the widowed Florence, who is immediately at ease in the rococo atmosphere of the house; she wears ruffles, uses words like “shan’t,” and drinks cognac and orange juice. In his final scene, Clay points out to Vance that Florence will be hard to fight. Aggressive, straightforward qualities aren’t as useful against someone whose language and bearing are so refined and subtle, it’s clear Florence keeps things back whenever needed, and knows when to release information. This is not a person of the Wild West but of capitalist America, with all its regulations and customs and power dynamics.

Florence is reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s characters, particularly in the scene where she finally has a one-on-one talk with Vance and admits her late husband was a loving man who never fully gave her the financial security she craved. When Florence quickly reveals she is going to marry T.C., she gives a double reason. “A woman my age can get lonely,” but she also wants to combine what wealth they have and grow it; an attitude in line with figures from Wharton’s New York stories, for whom “the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” The shrewd T.C. knows this is Florence’s attitude but relishes the idea of being married again, and of having a partner who isn’t his daughter.

For Vance, the insult and terror piles up. It’s more than Florence walking through Mrs. Jeffords’s bedroom as if it’s hers already. Florence, backed by T.C., decides to “relieve” Vance’s workload by bringing in her own connections from San Francisco to manage The Furies and send the young woman to Europe on the Grand Tour. In effect, she is taming the Jeffords and the West. Vance strikes back with the most overt expression yet of her inner furies: she mutilates Florence’s face with a pair of scissors, the catalyst for the cascading triumphs and tragedies of the third act.

This triangle resolves when T.C. flat-out asks Florence to loan him the needed money, but she refuses and breaks their engagement, preferring to keep what she has for stability. Instead of anger, T.C., impressed she is as true to herself as he is to himself, drinks a champagne toast “to a lady.” Florence looks at him with something very much like love. The wild baron appreciates civilization—and the civilizing, corrupting figure is charmed by the cowboy.

In the beginning, I stressed how Mann and Schnee were interested in the unchanging essences of people, and what events can shape a life while leaving those essences intact. This portion of the film is a great example: the changing world continues intruding on The Furies, and T.C. attempts to keep one foot in civilization. However, being T.C., he can’t help but keep the other wildly out, which results in irrevocable behavior, violence, and betrayal.

But the other portion carries all those qualities, plus a stirring romance, as Vance swerves between a man who complements her, providing forces she seems to lack, and a man who is her equal in fierceness.

The Passions Within: Vance, Juan, and Rip

The other man of the daytime besides T.C. is Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), the leading male in a family who has lived on this land for generations, long before T.C. showed up to take his own “possession” of it. This acknowledgement by Mann and Schnee is a driving engine. Everyone is financially fighting over The Furies, but a more indigenous group has a strong moral claim on it.

That claim, rooted in reverence for the land, is one of several parallels between Juan and Vance, who’ve grown up together. Both are heirs apparent in their families, although Juan has a positive, uncomplicated relationship with widowed matriarch Mrs. Herrera (Blanche Yurka), a woman whose mystical powers are as taken for granted as T.C.’s self-made personal myth. And both can be outspokenly, guilelessly honest. But while Vance is all hard edges and anger, Juan, though firm in character and ready to fight if it’s necessary, is laid back and ebullient. He frequently has a genuine smile, which disarms the likes of T.C., and he takes everything with an easygoing manner. Juan knows Vance loves him much more as something akin to a brother; someone integral to her life who’ll never be a romantic partner. But Juan has made peace with this. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Vance complains she doesn’t like being in love and asks Juan if he likes it. Juan’s sage reply: “It has been with me so long that whether I like it or not, without it I would be a lost man.”

This exchange, one inadvertently laying the groundwork for so much to come, was inspired by Vance’s tempestuous relationship to one last major character.

Beyond the atmospheric qualities of the picture, The Furies includes some stunning camerawork courtesy of Milner. For example, after Vance attacks Florence, she moves in a daze down the main staircase while several hired hands run up, both a descent into hell and an image of a woman moving against tides she might not control.

At Clay’s wedding, to, there is a moving over-the-shoulder shot of an imposing figure entering the party, walking steadily even as people take notice of him. An intruder, a catalyst. Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a professional gambler at the moment of his entrance, is a man who has as much reason as Juan to defy T.C.. Years ago, T.C. took a piece of land from Rip’s now-dead father, and the son has come to reclaim the Darrow Strip. Rip wears a black suit, and Corey is terrific at showing iciness and ironic smiles. But he also wears a white hat; his determination and ingenuity, coupled with his non-violent nature, are heroic, and a fire sparks between him and Vance. That very night, they kiss. For far from the last time.

Throughout the movie, their love story plays out almost entirely at night, mostly in the Darrow Strip, which Mann and Milner film as a fairy tale grove away from the machinations of the ranch and the world. But in those worlds, Vance is a person of immediacy and action who expects Rip to be a loudly devoted suitor. Rip in contrast is quiet, thoughtful, and truthful with a certain scrupulousness; at one point, while Vance provocatively sits on his lap, he describes why he loves cards; “They’re exciting and they’re honest. When they’re against you, they don’t make you think they’re for you. When they’re for you, they bring you money…{but} they lack flesh and blood.”

His honesty, though, is mixed with calculation, and he accepts T.C.’s offer of Vance’s dowry to not marry her. “You don’t want a husband,” he says as Vance breaks down in sadness and anger. “You’d just like to have a man handy.”

Enmity settles between Vance and Rip, especially when Rip uses the dowry to start a prosperous bank (that will last “’til kingdom come”) and allies himself with the capitalist forces. But Juan recognizes the underlying truth; right before events spin out of control, he tells Vance as she spits invective against Rip, “I have no stomach for the way you live…you cannot burn out the fire within you for this other man!

The Greatest Fury: Vance, Rip, and T.C.

Stanwyck, Corey, and Huston all share the same top title card billing, and their characters’ triangular arrangement brings the three furies to the fore more than any other. Their mutual machinations become the driving force for a third act straight from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, where earlier deeds have major consequences. And this begins when Vance’s strong emotions are brought to the height of provocation: feeling betrayed by Rip accepting the cynical offer of T.C.’s dowry, she sides with T.C. against Rip and the banks until Florence enters the picture and Vance realizes she has no allies to help her.

This culminates in the mutilation, then T.C. subsequently leading a group to expel the Herreras from The Furies as Florence wished. The movie thus offers one conventional Western action scene, full of gunfire and an energetic Walter Huston throwing live dynamite. But the excitement ends on a dark note; wanting payback for the attack on Florence and striking Vance where it hurts most, T.C. accuses Juan of a capital crime. El Tigre again hangs a man.

And Vance is at peak fury.

However instead of her usual hard, immediate action, she sees how the more refined world Florence represented could affect T.C.. So Vance adopts the ways of Florence—including fine dressing—for a long game to bring T.C. down financially by making deals with the banks, getting all the circulating T.C.s, and becoming his greatest creditor. Both her stubbornness and head for business have prepared her for the world she scorned. However, Vance needs an investment to pull this off. She goes to Rip with gleeful coolness and offers him a deal: he loans her the money, he gets the Darrow Strip when she controls The Furies again.

But Rip has kept the dowry intact. And Corey has real sadness in his eyes as he gives it to Stanwyck, declaring “You’re in love with hate. Well, if you’re patient and work hard enough, it may be all you need to live by. I hope it’ll be enough, because hate doesn’t leave room for anything else in your life.”

Vance’s plan works. But needing a cattle roundup for the ages in an attempt to keep the ranch, T.C. again becomes the bucking cowboy who must have ridden the land years ago. The daughter evolves, the father reclaims himself, and the intruding force discovers he wants the best for everyone. For one moment, the film suggests an ending of pure reconciliation and synthesis, a sense things will go on.

Except they don’t.

The story ends with T.C. gunned down by the vengeful Mrs. Herrera, but not before reconciling with his daughter, who rides with her fiancée onto the sunset-streaked land. Vance’s ideal state she dreamed of in the first half of the film is gone. As she tearfully laments to Rip when accepting his proposal, “We’ll never have what we had when we started out to have.”

Yet there is still an upbeat ending, as Mann and Schnee designed it. Change, they are saying, isn’t good (we lose T.C., who rightly declares in his dying breath “There’ll never be another like me.”) but it also isn’t bad.

Similarly, the tone of the movie never suggests any character is in the right or wrong. Vance never receives the punishment typically given to ambitious, violent women, but she also doesn’t get an unqualified triumph. Rip’s methodical nature is presented as part of what makes him a positive figure. T.C. and Florence get moments of raw emotion and a sense of adhering to a moral code even when the audience roots against them. And on top of what’s written in the screenplay, no cinematic language or technique confers a suggestion that these characters are worthy of praise or blame. They simply are. 

And the world of The Furies, by extension, simply is. So many Westerns of its era depict people like the Jeffords family as heroes, representatives of Manifest Destiny bringing a better (read: American) sensibility to the land. The Furies has more in common with the revisionist Westerns emerging out of Italy and the New Hollywood in its refusal to shy away from the cynicism, unjustness, and capitalist control that ultimately aided the whiteness of the Jeffordses and Darrows to displace the Herreras and others who’d lived on the land for much longer. But The Furies doesn’t condemn this state of affairs. It merely looks on with an all-seeing eye, asking its viewers to take in the complexities of its people and draw their own conclusions. This value-neutral refusal to pass any judgment is radical for 1950 and still stands out now as one of the most realistic depictions of human existence I could ask for in a movie.

Mann and Schnee would make more movies like this2, but would never do it quite as well as in The Furies, never again tell a story filled with action-packed emotional heights and simply ask those who’ve heard the story to say what it means to them, to construct their own meaning on the frontiers of their mind and heart. It’s something to think about long after leaving the theater, or your living room. Leaving this world set far away from the land of myths and more pointed stories, in a darkness where one sees clearly. Leaving to step back into the sunlight.

  1. In 1950, Mann began his famous collaboration with James Stewart in Winchester ’73, the first of multiple Westerns featuring Stewart as morally complex protagonists.
  2. Schnee in particular would win an Academy Award for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also featuring Roland, about the dirty dealings of Hollywood. Besides the Stewart Westerns, Mann would use the same philosophical approach in The Furies when making other classics, including Man of the West (1958) and El Cid (1961).