Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene.
…A desert peopled by the storms alone, Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone, And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously Its shapes are heap'd around! rude, bare, and high, Ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven.—Is this the scene Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply—all seems eternal now.
…All things that move and breathe with toil and sound Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell. Power dwells apart in its tranquillity, Remote, serene, and inaccessible: And this, the naked countenance of earth, On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mount Blanc”
“You can have patricide, every kind of –cide in a Western—and get away with it.”
—Anthony Mann [laughing]
Elbows out, hands on waist, erect, Barbara Stanwyck towers in the position throughout The Furies—over what? Like most Anthony Mann heroes, it’s mostly in her mind: her dreams, her torments, her pride, all given little objective correlation and reason. Infamously, Mann wanted to film a Western King Lear for years, and there are those (like Robin Wood in his excellent liner notes on the Criterion DVD) who have demonstrated that The Furies may be it, with T.C. Jeffries (Walter Huston) as the unsound and furious, mad, impotent patriarch. Yet Stanwyck’s Vance—like every character in this movie—is cut from mangy, well-worn Lear cloth too. She towers and terrorizes; and yet Mann will, in a shot like the one above, pitch her ceremonious swaggering far in the background, diminished, as a small figure lending a small sense of order to a (visually) empty world.
The skies are always blank in The Furies, and the craggy landscape barren. Mann’s Greek tragedies have no divine curses or ploys; his world is abandoned to the futile blunders of humans seeking control where they can—or can’t—find it. Like Hitchcock or Sirk, he’s something of a Romantic Ironist. The quests of tyrant fools deserve failure—but they’re also the only stories that deserve telling. When Mann cuts to show his heroes attempting their Sisyphean task to mount a mountain—a task that finds precedence at least as far back as Shelley, and will be attempted in his Westerns again and again—the blatant change in skyline (and thus, perspective, as his Mann switches not to show us his world as he sees it, but as his characters’ do, the epic quest they face) is about on par with Hitchcock’s winking reinvigoration of a cliché as the waves crash against the lovers in Vertigo. It’s nonsense. It’s also extremely beautiful.
Three successive shots:
Similarly, there are (as far as I could tell) no windows ever seen in the Jeffries’ household—until late in the movie, as it storms outside, so that there’s nothing to see—unless a character is looking out of one onto some private vision we’re not permitted to see alongside; a stone fortress, cluttered with statues and armored shields and knives, the house is set up like a basement—a dungeon, or catacombs, done up in lace. The claustrophobia of Mann’s interiors is the match to the expansiveness of Mann’s exteriors (as in his previous film, Border Incident), as neither, in any case, lends any support (or comfort) to the wholly independent protagonists, who have no idea how much they need it.
And, as often is the case for Mann, perhaps the most tactile director of classic Hollywood, there are two types of touching here, both culminations of his romantic and tragic dramas: the touch of lovers struggling to hold onto each other and knowing they can’t, and the touch of tormentors, trying to gain full physical control over each other (Man of the West will prove the culmination of these concerns). And, as often is the case for Mann, these types aren’t far apart from one another. In a film in which every character vainly tries to control his/her fate, touch provides some momentary enactment of a fantasy, loving or sadistic (or in the incestuous case of Stanwyck’s and father figure Huston’s relationship, both), some momentarily sense of command. Lovers grasp each other as one must go to his death; but also, Stanwyck’s head is rammed into a bowl of water (by one lover; an act endured by Mann in his childhood), and Stanwyck throws a pair of scissors in the eyes of her father’s girlfriend.
All of which has its bearing on the plot of the film, a revenge cycle. “There never was a man like old TC,” sings a balladeer/troubadour—a good comic presence for this medieval world—though Stanwyck’s character is a nice refutation. She is her father’s double, just as the man she chooses to marry is also his double, and just as the man her father chooses to marry is her double, all of them bullheaded despots trying to exploit one another. What saves the story from cynicism is, perversely, the pleasure they take in one-upping and destroying their loved ones. In a modern movie world dominated by dominatrix-sorts—of Wall-E
, The Last Mistress
, and, supposedly, Get Smart
—no-nonsense and very serious, more thirsty for blood than other bodily liquids, the example of Barbara Stanwyck’s independent women, full of lick and fire (as Huston says), seems lost. In The Furies
, for example, the cycle of flaunted power and humiliations begins with a series of laughs. Laughing, Stanwyck struts straight over to a man her father’s ordered out of his ball (who has already defied him), and asks him to dance; laughing, in return, her father watches them waltz, as if to prove that he can take a joke—and that the whole sequence is a joke. On the one hand, the mockeries and rebellions have begun. On the other, we have three people all duly impressed and taken with, and even sympathetic to each other’s chutzpah.
What follows is a wholly unnecessary series of escalating power games, of father and daughter losing more and more power the more they try to display it. Lovers are killed and scarred and banished, sanity questioned, until, as in any chase up a mountain, there is no going back. Which is why the last 30 or 40 minutes is often considered a bit awkward—personally, I love them—as the parent-child rivals’ means must be compromised to avoid compromising their ends (until, eventually, in this great Romantic tale, they reach an accountant’s compromise). The point, in any case, is, quite deliberately, Aeschylus’s: that in attempting to surpass the code of familial domestic relations, one nevertheless ends up victim to the codes and rituals of revenge, a hubristic cycle whose sacrifices and defiances allow little of the autonomy sought. Neurotic, one simply does what one has to do to defend his/her pride. And, in time, loses everything.
So, Mann’s wilderness may be abandoned to the plights of men, but is hardly theirs to make of it what they will; rather, the land’s lifeless, and there’s nothing to make of it at all. But ever performing their favorite ceremonies, Mann’s characters wrestle bulls, lock hands on hips, and stand, as in that first shot above, in grandly ritualized position, defiant, and yet, in all senses, totally out of control. In the foreground, as he’ll do later (immediately above), Mann places an old Indian woman whose scabrous face seems to rival the rockland’s. Weather-beaten, she’s still the real face of fury, far more than any other character in the movie, and her intrusion to the front of the screen seems another of Mann’s attempts to break through it, somewhat like he'll do with the scissors later on. As in all of Mann’s great work, the thrills of The Furies are as vicarious as they are cerebral; as invasive as they are distanced. This is something of the predicament of Mann’s characters as well, conceiving one world (clouds and glory), confronted with another (rocks and scissors). The two are as far apart as Mann’s foreground is from his background. For the problem of any of Mann’s Westerns is reconciliation, which must be found, if at all, in death. That it’s not, here, is a defect Mann would fix in later Westerns built off the same template. But for me, The Furies still is one of the great silent movies.