Frenzied opening strings from a score by Franz Waxman assist in introducing a film that positions itself as another textured portrait of the West boasting a pair of grandiose performances from Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. This particular ride down the well-trodden paths takes place in New Mexico where cattle barons ruled the land like feudal lords. At its core is a warring clan and this is their tale of belligerent family drama that sprawls across the plains with a vengeance.
In fact, T.C. Jeffers (Walter Huston) is a man ruling his acreage known as “The Furies” with an equally-suited ferocity. He’s a larger-than-life figure who knows how to throw around his weight; the territory is scattered with his I.O.U.s christened T.C.s.
But his daughter Vance (Stanwyck) is no less imposing, knowing precisely what she wants — his empire — and chasing after it with the full intention of sinking her claws into it someday. When she finds the right man of course. We can liken them to Rockefellers of the West, ruthless while also being fiercely loyal and even generous to their friends. But they are not squeamish about going after their own.
The ensuing melodrama is laced with arsenic braced by Anthony Mann’s usual choices that ratchet the tension. While the scale has grown, his aptitude for projecting a certain raw volatility on the western frontier is no less apparent.
When rugged Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) ambles into the Jeffers’ home during a lively gathering, Vance immediately tries to win him. It starts with a dance and goes from there. Far more than a mere pretty face, Wendell Corey holds a grudge that really leaves an impression. He has long felt slighted by Jeffers for ending up with the land he long thought was his own and he gladly gets back at the man through his daughter. Except Vance feels betrayed when Rip takes $50,000 in bribe money never to see her again. That’s the termination of their relationship for good.
But it turns out that T.C. also seeks out companionship of his own and his chosen mate, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) proves to be a golddigger who hardly hides her intentions. She receives only Vance’s ire and Ms. Jeffords is not about to let this woman finagle her way into the family business even resorting to violence if necessary.
It’s yet another riff in this power struggle that reverberates again and again. Because this is an unrestrained showcase of opportunistic human beings who glory in their own avarice and pursuit of wealth. People pushing others around and undermining them with little regard for their well-being.
It ends up reaching its absolute zenith with a bloody shootout to push the Hererra Family led by brother Juan (Gilbert Roland) off the Furies once and for all.The skirmish results with one man at the end of a rope and Vance never about to let her father forget what he has done to one of her closest childhood friends.
But it doesn’t stop there because it never can. Not with people such as this. Daughter goes out across the frontier on a vendetta that will pay heavy dividends. She even reconnects with the other man she never wanted to see again. Together they scheme T.C.’s ultimate downfall but as he gets on in years the old warhorse is faltering a bit. His glory days are setting so maybe it’s for the best. One could say that T.C. got his comeuppance but by all accounts, he died a legend. The same cannot be said for many of his adversaries.
I can’t help but juxtapose Devil’s Doorway and The Furies. An interesting reference point is that Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck were still husband and wife at the time but in both pictures, they try mightily to tame the West and hold onto to be what they believe is rightfully theirs. They have varying degrees of success.
The film also exhibits a racial element much like Devil’s Doorway because though it is rarely talked about, much of the mythology of the West is tied up in the white pioneer’s story. The marginalized folks like Native Americans, Hispanics, and certainly Asians are pushed to the edges of the frame. This film showcases the Herrera family.
Further still, there are an array of strikingly powerful women who exert their control in different ways. Though Beulah Bondi has a relatively small part you quickly realize that women such as her are important figures. Because they carry such crucial sway in the business of their husbands as the voices whispering advice into their ears.
Meanwhile, Judith Anderson while a bit of a tramp nevertheless is forthright and transparent about her intentions. She’s not a complete pushover and that makes a slight tussle with Stanwyck entirely credible.
Obviously, Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal — one of the few performers who could have pulled off this role much like the matriarch in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). It needs someone who is that assured and strong, who carries an unmistakable presence anchored by undeniable beauty. She was blessed with both.
Walter Huston would pass away the same year in 1950 but The Furies compiled his innumerable talents in one last monumental showing that’s a worthy swan song in a veteran career. What a way to go as T.C. Jeffords.