Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Furies (1950) - #435

Scratch my sixth lumbar vertebra.

When I was a kid, I consumed, collected and generally obsessed about Mad Magazine to pretty much the same degree that I'm currently involved with the Criterion Collection (only back then I didn't have a blog to track my impressions and I was more inclined toward imitation through drawing and writing my parodies.) I didn't limit my pursuit to just the magazines either - I actually preferred their old paperback books and reprints, especially after I learned that Mad had started as a full-color comic book. Without starting off in a full digression, I'll just cite one particular piece that made a big impact on my thinking and sticks with me to this very day. It's a bit put together by Harvey Kurtzmann and Jack Davis titled "Book! Movie!" - basically contrasting the varying degrees of explicitness that written and pictorial media were allowed to depict. I imagine that the germ of the idea grew out of the censorship problems faced by Mad's parent company, EC Comics, that faced legal and economic persecution for their supposedly corrupting influence on American youth in the mid-50s. Apparently after the heights of the McCarthyite "red scare," our society needed a new bogeyman to go after, and sensationalistic, gory comics provided a convenient target.

You can get a sample of the Book! Movie! comparison by following the link. I still think it's pretty funny, and now that I've read The Furies as written by Niven Busch, and watched The Furies as directed by Anthony Mann, the joke rings true. The novel, in case you didn't know, is included in Criterion's handsome and bulky box-set, a brief phase the company went through in 2007 when it released Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr in a similarly lavish edition complete with thick book containing screenplay and literary sources. Criterion hasn't released any more book-movie combos since (though they did issue similar boxes in their earlier editions of Short Cuts and The Man Who Fell To Earth) so I can't say that the experiment was especially successful in commercial terms, but I enjoyed this unusual (for me) excursion into Western fiction - I can guarantee I would never have read this novel if it hadn't been included in the set!

The novel and film begin similarly enough, with the introduction of T.C. Jeffords (Jefford in the book,) a brash, swaggering 19th century cattle baron, just returned to his vast New Mexico ranch (called the Bird Foot in the book and The Furies in the movie.) He's greeted by his family (two sons and daughter in the book, one son and daughter in the movie.) Vance, the daughter, is the other key figure, like her father a larger-than-life character whose independence and fierce individuality draws the reader/viewer in with relative ease. The rest of the personalities introduced in the stories play important roles, interesting enough to hold our attention, but the drama pivots around the father-daughter relationship, a prolonged study in the Electra complex.

T.C. is intensely ego driven, charismatic, authoritative and well settled into a lifelong routine of seeing lesser men retreat submissively whenever he steps forward to assert his dominance. He's used any number of stratagems in all shades of ethical purity to amass his fortune, but it's always been the thrill of the chase rather than the accumulation of wealth for its own sake that propelled him on to the next adventure. He plays it loose, prepared to lose it all if need be, rather than ever settle down into a protective, defensive, play-it-safe stance. His son(s) inherit little of his exorbitant lust for life though - that legacy goes directly to Vance, who starts out as a headstrong, tomboyish (but beautiful) daddy's girl who knows just how to push the limits with her dad and get away with it in a style that no one else can approximate.

In the novel, we first meet her as she's breaking off a romantic relationship with Juan Herrera, a Mexican, who along with his family live in a remote mountainous region of the ranch. The writer informs us that Vance had given him "delights" prior to this scene that were "unretractable," but the film never comes close to being that suggestive. The movie casts them as childhood friends, who embrace and even kiss at certain critical moments, and Juan admits his love for her, but there's no clear hint of sexual intimacy between them. The audience was left to read a lot more into the lines here, and elsewhere, if they were so inclined.

Same with Vance's relationship with Rip Darrow, the "grit-eatin', blackleg gambler" who Vance falls for, against her father's wishes, and becomes her primary romantic foil in both the film and the novel. In the book, his name is Curley Darragh, providing another amusing example of the way a film adaptation streamlines and homogenizes the narrative. Lean, taciturn Wendell Corey just doesn't make a very good Curley! (And the verdict is mixed on his Rip, an icy, calculating sort who doesn't exude magnetism but whose detached arrogance might be just the kind of thing a woman like Vance finds enticing in a man, on the theory that opposites often attract.) The general pattern of their courtship follows a similar contour from book to movie, but the book has her naked in his bed shortly after her first visit to his casino/office, while the movie just shows Rip slapping Vance around a bit and shoving her face into a bowl of water - that's about as erotically charged as the visuals get, though we're treated to a few moderately spicy verbal exchanges and Barbara Stanwyck's confident command of her smoldering gaze.

Stanwyck, her co-star Walter Huston, and the impressive "Western noir" visuals directed by Anthony Mann, are the real attractions here, along with a story that, on balance, flows better than Niven Busch's original conception (in my opinion.) Stanwyck's previous Criterion appearance, in The Lady Eve, shows her as a younger, sexier comedienne. By the time of The Furies, she was already 43 years old, though she doesn't look that far along in life. Still, that's a pretty mature age to take on a role initially described as a woman in her late teens. Stanwyck does a nice job making us forget the incongruity. Likewise, Walter Huston, in his final screen performance (he died, only 66, before this film was released) brings a lot of energy and vibrancy to his role, even as he depicts a man whose peak years are receding rapidly behind him. Huston played Old Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster (in fact, he says "I'm back to scratch. That's when I had my fun, startin' from scratch" as one of the final lines he ever spoke on camera,) and had won the Oscar for his role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre just the previous year. Watching him and Stanwyck display their acting skills in the film production was a treat as they both hit the mark in creating a screen presence outsized enough to satisfy fans of the book, which was a best-seller in its times but now out of print (other than this edition!) I also have to mention Judith Anderson as Flo, T.C.'s lady friend who's arrival at the ranch kicks the brackets off the repressed incestuous underpinnings and sends Vance into a whirlwind of acting-out behavior. She played the memorable role of Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca and shows her mastery of the wicked older woman type almost as affectingly here. Their performances underscored for me the superiority of the cinematic medium for telling stories, when the right assemblage of talent is brought to the task. (Please note that I'm not saying that movies are categorically or generically better than books!)

Despite the undeniable advantages of broader latitude for both author and reader in regard to censorship and the ability to explore at length more nuances of meaning, reading a book makes us dependent on the author's ability to sustain the narrative, take it in profitable directions and populate it with interesting, adequately realized characters. Cinema puts us more immediately and more holistically in touch with the main themes of a story, allowing a full range of artistic expressions (including writing) to contribute to our enjoyment and comprehension. Though Niven Busch deserves a lot of credit for writing an entertaining and psychologically complex novel that turns many genre conventions on its head (while preserving good chunks of humor and historical detail,) I think he took some wrong turns in the story, at least when put in direct comparison with the film. Here's one notable example of what I mean - a pivotal scene in which Rip is put to the test by T.C., who mistrusts his daughter's claim that she and Rip are truly in love. Even if you don't know the story, you can quickly pick up on what's going on here:

Compare that snappy, efficient exposition with this, the equivalent passage from the book:

[T.C.] flipped onto the desk a small brown-paper package Vance had seen before, marked with her name: the package that contained her marriage portion.
"There's fifty thousand dollars in this bundle, Mr. Darragh. I laid it by against a time like this. Never thought when I did the time would come so soon, but a man cain't always pick his own spots, can he now? I told her if she stayed here along with me she could inherit the hull spread, lock, stock, an' barrel, er, if she picked a runnin'-mate I cottoned to, this fifty thousand was hers, or theirs together. Or his'n - yes, sir, his'n, if she wanted it that way. An' I told her-" T.C.'s voice deepened and thickened to a horny trumpeting, "- I told her if she married some worthless jake that got into her britches when the moon was high I'd cut her off without a cent. An' that sir, is jest what I intend doin' if she marries you..."
Mr. Darragh nodded. He seemed to have expected this statement or one like it and to have prepared himself against it.
"That is a matter for you to decide, Mr. Jefford. I came here asking for your consent to my marriage to your daughter Vance. Just that and nothing more."
T.C.'s eyes blazed and his mouth twisted. The hate he had been so carefully controlling leaped into his face like an acrobat into a circus net.
"Well spoken, sir. You'll pardon me if I keep just the least suspicion how far you mean them words."
"You are calling me a liar then, sir?" Curley inquired, still without any change of tone.
"No, sir," T.C. said venomously, "but I'll let you prove yourself one. I figure that I know the kind of blackleg you are, as I told you once to your own face; you'd crawl from here to Santa Fe fer three dollars..."
Taking the packet from the desk he rose and walked over to the stove, kicking the fire grate open with his foot.
"Here is the fifty thousand apportioned to my daughter if she marries a man I like. You kin have it, sire, and her along with it. All you need to do is reach into thisyere stove and pull it out when it gets burnin' good."
So saying he threw the packet of money into the coals and shut the grate.
"Easy now," T.C. said triumphantly, putting out his arm to check Vance. "He'll do it... mark my words. It's an old test: I heard tell of some Roosian gal that done it once to her sweetheart - some queen way back in history. Or one of the Roosian gals at Rocking-chair Emma's. I disremember... Leastways, go ahead, sir. Pull it out. What's checkin' you?"
Through the grill of the fire door the packet could be clearly seen, it's thick brown-paper wrapping slowly crinkling into flame.
Vance did not mean to look at Curley's face. She did not want to but she could not help it, so diabolic was this test. T.C. had hit unerringly on the mortal weakness of the other man - the weakness she hd struggled not to see and yet had always known about.
Curley's eyes were fixed on the tiny openings of the grate. When T.C. had first thrown the packet into the fire he had betrayed himself with a strange yet natural gesture; he had jumped from his chair and put his hand out just as if he meant to catch the money in mid-air and prevent its destruction. Now, as he saw the paper curl, the tiny flames burst from its corners and run down its edges, he could hardly keep himself from crying out. His right hand was still extended forward, in its gesture of catching; his mouth hung open, sweat stood on his face. With a degradation terrible to see he finally dragged his eyes from the burning money; he looked at Vance with a horrified supplication as if begging her to rescue him from his own predicament - a look which seemed to say that his own soul as well as the fifty thousand dollars was being destroyed in the bright belly of the little stove.
Vance returned this look with one of gentleness and pity. For she did pity him; she felt in that moment as if her were a child wrongfully punished for something he could not help. Yet at the same time she hated him, for he had failed. His longing to reach into the stove and pull the money out was all too clear: T.C. had made a fool of him, had bested him in front of her. She did not cease to love him; she did not at that moment ask herself whether she loved him or not, but she knew one thing without the slightest doubt - she did not want him now; his weakness had wiped out all memory of the time when he had stood up to T.C. and taken his measure.
Without hesitation she put an end to his trial. She flipped open the clasp of the fire door with her bare hand, burning herself badly. This was the worst burn that she received; the packet was not yet fully on fire and when she reached into the stove Vance seized it so deftly and quickly by its unburned center portion that she drew it out with little more than a scorching. She threw the packet on the table, slapping out the remaining flames. The string had burned away: it was a simple matter to loosen the charred paper and pull out the money, unharmed except for a slight charring at the end and a blackening of the bills on the top and bottom. She handed the money to Curley.
"You heard my father say this was for you, sir. I'd be favored if you'd take it."
"Your servant, ma'am."
Curley spoke mockingly. His face was contemptuous; he looked as if he were about to throw the money on the floor. Instead, with the deliberation of a sleepwalker, he unbuttoned his coat and put the packet in an inside pocket. He opened his mouth as if to speak but changed his mind and merely bowed to Vance and then to T.C., neither of whom made the slightest acknowledgment. With erect bearing and scornful eyes, his composure completely restored, Mr. Darragh turned his back on them and left the room.

Some may prefer the novel's treatment, but I found it confusing and clumsy, compared to the cunning shrewdness and manipulation shown by both T.C. and Rip, to the detriment of poor, gullible, lovestruck Vance. Likewise, I thought film did a better job in its handling of Vance's scissors attack on Florence Burnett and the circumstances that led to Juan's demise. So much for those who say the book is always better than the movie!

The liner notes and commentary for The Furies taught me a lot about director Anthony Mann, whose films are otherwise unfamiliar to me. This was one of his earlier westerns and served as his transition to bigger budget, more heralded epics that gradually increased the degree of violence not only in his films but in mainstream commercial cinema over the decade. Here Mann works a slaty-grey palette, featuring a lot of horseback riding across the range in silhouette-inducing dawn and twilight settings. Along with the prerequisite (and gorgeously shot) mountain and high plains landscapes, cattle roundups, a cowboy song and saloonThe point is made on a few occasions about Mann's commitment to location shots, putting actors and crew in challenging circumstances, evoking a more visceral response from the performers that communicates authenticity to the audience. Given that this was Criterion's first (and so far, only) foray into the venerable Western genre, it comes as a nice change of pace, especially for me. I've never been particularly drawn to Westerns, though I've seen my share of them - I just haven't given them the kind of attention that others have, and that I'm beginning to understand they deserve. The wide-open landscapes, the possibilities of an unexplored frontier, the cultural memory of a life lived "in the raw" - all convey a psychological depth and power that I've generally overlooked for most of my life, more content to watch the lampooning of white hat/black hat cliches a la Blazing Saddles or simply assuming that westerns were more suitable for crotchety old-fashioned types and country bumpkins. It's my loss, I'll own up to it - but I'm too busy watching Criterion art house stuff for the time being to get a whole lot deeper into the classic works of John Ford and the vast body of work that Hollywood filmmakers churned out in these settings over the course of the 20th century. Maybe when I'm done watching all 500+ Criterion films a few years from now, I'll be ready to start a new series, "Wanderings Out West" or something along those lines...

Next: Rashomon

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