In 1950, the taut, uncompromising Winchester ’73 marked Anthony Mann’s transition from a good director into a great one. But he actually released three other movies that year, including the remarkable, complex The Furies. A Freudian Western centered on the fall of a patriarchal structure, The Furies is a fine illustration of how old Hollywood would sniff around grave subjects, only to shy away from their full impact.
T.C. (Walter Huston) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) lord over their sprawling New Mexico ranch like benevolent despots; they also display eerie possessiveness toward each other, suggesting their father-daughter bond is a little deeper than is healthy. Financial pressure mounts on the property, and the arrival of the urbane, self-assured Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) drives a further wedge between T.C. and Vance.
The puritanical climate of the time ensured that screenwriter Charles Schnee couldn’t explore all the implications of this explosive setup; indeed, Niven Busch’s bracing original novel—included in this gorgeous, slipcased Criterion edition—is a lot bolder than the film, notably in its suggestion of the quasi-incestuous bond between T.C. and Vance, and in the assertion that Vance and the proud ranch squatter Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) are a little more than BFFs. But Mann’s sense of pacing and his unparalleled eye for stunning composition offset the script’s final timidity—few American directors, for instance, have so powerfully suggested the intimate connection between character and landscape. Even with its concessions, this is the kind of overheated classic that makes you further realize that contemporary “revisionist” Westerns aren’t that daring after all.