Criterion’s release of this Anthony Mann staple sees an acting legend finding her genre and hitting her stride
This final day of July not only ushers in the next phase of summer but also marks the end (for a handful of devoted cinephiles, anyhow) of the legendary Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday month. To this day, the actress remains virtually unrivaled in the number of barriers she broke and the kind of performances she gave. For some, she remains the first lady of film noir, while for others see her as the quintessential romantic comedienne. For everyone, she is the vanguard of actresses who carved out a career that contained countless heroines which almost always went against the grain of society. Even today, watching Stanwyck embody fierce independence and combine it with sensuality remains a wonder to behold in titles such as The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and Double Indemnity. Recently, Criterion paid tribute to Stanwyck with the release of The Furies, a 1950 western starring herself, John Huston, Wendell Corey and Judith Anderson that proved the quintessential vehicle for the actress’s aforementioned talents and still remains compelling all these years later.
In The Furies, Vance (Stanwyck) the daughter of wealthy New Mexico land baron T.C. (Huston) becomes determined to take over running the family land after her father retires. Despite problems including squatters on the land and I.O.U.’s owed by her father, Vance has convinced herself that the land known as “The Furies” shall be hers and hers alone. However, the presence of a sneaky businessman named Rip (Corey) and his father’s new fiance Flo (Anderson) threaten Vance’s future plans.
Although she’d continued her reign as one of Hollywood’s top actresses into the 40s, it felt as if the latter half of the decade wasn’t as fruitful for Stanwyck as the first had been. In fact, save for 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number (a stellar noir which netted her a fourth and final Oscar nom), there wasn’t much in the way of inspiring roles available to her. She seemed to be in demand as ever and the actress found herself paired with plenty of Hollywood’s finest leading men including Erroll Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Kirk Douglas. It wasn’t the quality of Stanwyck’s performances that had changed, but rather the quality of her parts. Gone were the kind of vibrant and electrifying characters she’d made her own and in their place was a series of girls from the wrong side of the tracks and one-dimensional villainesses, all of which felt like pale imitations of women Stanwyck had played before.
The Furies was vital for Stanwyck for several reasons, not least of all because it was on the more prestige end of films compared to what she’d been offered in recent years. The presence of director Anthony Mann at the helm ensured that the movie was one which knew what do with an actress like Stanwyck. Mann steps back and lets his leading lady roam free with her character, knowing the life and vitality she can give to a complex protagonist like Vance, which she does from the first frame. Although she would later be associated with westerns almost as much as she would be with noir, the actress was largely new to the genre. As her work in The Furies shows, the western was just the right fit for Stanwyck, an actress whose boundless energy, passion and fire were as sprawling as the land her character fights for. It’s no shocker to see why she would be drawn to the role of Vance. The character is critical of the patriarchal society and challenges it without blinking an eye, fighting her own father for what she feels is rightfully hers. Vance is feminine, smart, but also vulnerable. Each are qualities Stanwyck has always soared at balancing simultaneously, and which she does here once again to the greatest of effect.
As a movie, The Furies shows Mann at his best as a filmmaker. His approach to it as the story of a father and a daughter makes for a compelling family saga that’s only made more watchable by the Freudian undertones and somewhat scandalous elements, including Vance’s interracial love affair. Even though The Furies wasn’t a hit, it was vital for Stanwyk’s continuation as a formidable screen presence who couldn’t be dismissed. Afterwards, Stanwyck would soon find herself saddled with starring vehicles that were far beneath her, save for a few bright spots like Titanic, Clash by Night, Executive Suite and Forty Guns. In the 1964 horror/thriller The Night Walker (her final feature before moving to television for the remainder of her career), director William Castle capitalized on the grand dame Guignol craze of the day by casting Stanwyck in a story about a woman being haunted by her dreams. Naturally, the legendary leading lady managed to elevate the project through a performance full of strength and vulnerability in that way only she could deliver. Sometimes referred to as “the best actress who never won an Oscar,” Stanwyck carved out a career without the safety of a major studio, choosing to go it alone as a free agent and letting her brilliant work speak for itself, which it still does to this day.
The Furies is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
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