The United States of America
Dallas Hart: Just get in off the railroad?
Vance Jeffords: Yeah.
Dallas Hart: We haven't met before. My name is Dallas Hart. I'm new in town, honey.
Vance Jeffords: Honey, you wouldn't be new anyplace.
It must have been intimidating to be an actress in Hollywood in 1950. That year produced some of
the best and most respected female performances in film history. Gloria Swanson discovered a new of mania in her performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. America's imagination was captured by the antics of Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington and Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve. Even the realms of animation were enamored by Disney's Cinderella (which coincidentally was the highest grossing film of the year, pulling in $41,087,000). The truth was the female actors and the characters that they portrayed were becoming tougher, more developed, and more fascinating. But despite all of the accolades bestowed upon the female performances of 1950, one is frequently forgotten about. The actress in question was no stranger to tough, demanding roles. In fact, she helped pioneer them. The actress was the immortal Barbara Stanwyck. The film was Anthony Mann's criminally underrated Western epic The Furies.
The story takes place in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870s. The sprawling plains and beautiful vistas are captivating and even earned the film a nomination for Best Cinematography. But the untamed wilderness is only the background for an even more untamed struggle of wills between two of the fiercest personalities to ever grace the Territories. The first is T. C. Jeffords, a cunning cattle baron who carved out his own ranch with his own two hands. He named his ranch the Furies, and he runs it like a king. He pays his workers with his own currency called 'T.C.s'. He is constantly fighting Mexican squatters on his land. He has enemies like Rip Darrow who's father owned the Furies before T.C. took it. And yet, he has an amiable personality. Played by the awe-inspiring Walter Huston in his last film role, he comes equipped with a laugh that can be heard all throughout the plains and a personality that mimics the actions of a perfect gentleman. But this is a facade. T.C. is a true Machiavellian, and his personality comes off as more of a front to confuse and put off his potential rivals and opponents before he personally destroys them. And yet, there is some sense of decency. He keeps his late wife's room immaculate, and spends an hour every day by himself inside it. When he finds out late in the movie that one of his employees had been embezzling him for years, instead of having him arrested, he sighs and tells him to keep it. While he may not engage in fair play, he goes to great lengths to create the appearance that he does.
The second is his daughter, Vance. Every bit as powerful and headstrong as her father, Vance captures the attention of the story and the audience. It is only proper that Stanwyck was casted for this role, because I honestly cannot imagine any other actress filling her shoes with the same amount of cock-sure personality and rock-stead cool. Well, maybe Joan Crawford could have. She certainly held her own in Nicholas Ray's Western Johnny Guitar (1954), but she would have lacked the sense of joy, the thrill in the chase and the pursuit that permeates Stanwyck's performance. And she needs these qualities in order to survive the trials imposed upon her in this film. Not only does Vance ride a horse with the best of them, she manages to look stunning in a dress. And that is the key to her character: her duel personality. On one hand, she is a doting daughter. The aforementioned dress was worn the first time she meets T.C. in the film. They hug, kiss, joke, and make merry for much of the film. But as time goes on, the relationship with her father crumbles. A cool, calculating tactician reveals herself as she takes it upon herself to ruin her father and take control of the Furies. To say that she has daddy issues would be a severe understatement. Is it by chance that in the first scene she dresses up like a woman going to a ball in her mother's old room? Thoughts of an Electra complex come to mind. Is she trying to replace her mother, or just seeking the affection that T.C. gave her when she was alive?
But T.C. is not the only man in Vance's life. There are two others who vie for her affection. The first is Mr. Darrow. They court for a while, but he ultimately betrays her in a particularly lacerating scene. T.C. calls them both into his office and offers Mr. Darrow a large sum of money to break off his relationship with his daughter. Vance gets a look of triumph in her eyes. There is no way that he would betray her! But then, with a smile, he picks the money off, shoves it into his vest, and walks out. Vance is devestated, but T.C. is all smiles. He knows the score: anything Mr. Darrow can do to bring down the Jeffords is fair game in his eyes. Thankfully, Vance has another man to go to. His name is Gilbert Roland, one of the Mexican squatters who happens to be her live-long friend. The two have this charming practice of sharing bread with each other in a kind of personal communion. Is it love in their eyes? Who knows?
But alas, Gilbert is one of the squatters threatening T.C.'s claim. After a prolonged battle, T.C. forces Gilbert's people to leave the Furies and hangs him in the process for stealing his livestock. This sets Vance over the edge. She swears that one day she will take the Furies away from T.C. After some clever maneuvering, she does just that. By taking all of the 'T.C.s' that he has been handing out as currency, she is able to buy the entire track of land for barely a penny. Father and daughter manage to reconciliate, but not before the tragic ending that sees one of them dead on the ground.
I guess that only one of them could survive considering both of them were such dominate personalities. Even though T.C. gave birth to the Furies, it is only proper that Vance takes control of it. But why? Is it because she deserves it more than T.C.? No, if it wasn't for T.C. the Darrows would still control the land. Is it because she was smarter than T.C.? Well, maybe. She did trick him into selling his entire estate for worthless pieces of paper. But would Vance be able to come up with such a system in the first place? Probably not considering that she is such a straight-shooter. Well, at least when compared to her father. Maybe the real reason is because T.C. has outlived himself on the Furies. To his last day, T.C. was a wellspring of activity. In one of the film's most entertaining moments, T.C. ropes and ties a cow that doesn't follow the herd when he decides to sell them. 'I'm still the king of the Furies,' he cries out. But kings cannot live forever. Eventually, they will have to move on and make way for their successors.
But it is that dynamic which makes The Furies such a perfect movie. Watching Stanwyck and Walter Huston square off is one of its greatest pleasures. While Huston's performance is nothing to laugh at, it is Stanwyck who stole the show. But that wouldn't be the first time that she did. She was known for playing difficult roles. She played the perfect con in The Lady Eve (1941), established the archetypal femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), and became known as the 'Queen of the West' through all her work in the Western genre. She was one of the few women who could upstage Hollywood's most powerful leading men. She never won an Academy Award, but she was nominated four times. She was nominated four times for Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress thank you very much. But regardless of trophies and accolades, Stanwyck was one of Hollywood's most influential leading women. It all comes to a front here in this movie where she must face the Furies: the one outside her front door, and the one inside her parlor room.