What's a masochist who's nobody? For a masochist to get a proper kick from humiliation, he or she needs to have a lot to be proud of. The most accomplished masochist will make sure he or she looks like a king or queen to the world, the best masochist expresses sexual excitement with angry vengeance. Sometimes this kind of masochism runs in a family as it does in Anthony Mann's 1950 western The Furies where T.C. Jeffords and his daughter rule their vast land holdings in the old American west like feudal lords. This is, in both senses of the word, a terrific film, a fascinating portrait of decadently repressed and channelled feelings.
Every time I think I've seen all of the great roles Barbara Stanwyck played in her long career I see another one. She plays Vance Jeffords, a young woman who takes gleeful pleasure in the power she has over others. She's daughter of T.C. Jeffords, played by Walter Huston in his final role. A man of enormous ego whose status is so great he has his own currency--TCs--which he pays his hands with instead of Federal currency.
He calls his little kingdom The Furies, a name which brings to mind the Greek mythological Furies. And if one sees currency as promissory notes, one can see how the Jeffords are the forces who regulate oaths. They exact extreme commitments and promises and seem to relish in the fury they feel when those promises are broken. T.C. tells Vance he plans to leave her The Furies when he dies on the condition she marries a man he approves of. When Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) shows up at a party uninvited and Vance sees how furious he makes her father she immediately decides to dance with him. T.C. scowls and then laughs, loudly and deeply.
Used to getting her way with the men who work for her father or live at his mercy, she's enraged when Rip doesn't show up to a party she tells him to attend. She goes into town and confronts him at a saloon. He hits her and pushes her face in a wash basin.
He does it all coldly, like he's breaking an animal. When she actually shoots at him later in the movie, the bullet grazing his shoulder, he doesn't even flinch. Like her father, who succumbs to cool, controlling women--first Vance's mother, then a rich interloper who clashes with Vance--Vance finds Rip's abuse and indifferent demeanour stimulates her obsession.
He's not the first man she's had an affair with against her father's wishes. She's carried on a relationship for years with Juan (Gilbert Roland), the young patriarch of a Mexican family of squatters on The Furies. Maybe she got some excitement out of seeing someone so forbidden, but by the time of the film's events Juan clearly only gives Vance physical pleasure while he maintains a steady, unbreakable love. It's precisely this that renders him less attractive in Vance's eyes than Rip.
The movie ends much too tidily; maybe the censors interfered because the people in the movie were too delightfully fucked up, maybe the filmmakers wanted to give Walter Huston a proper swansong in his last role. At any rate, the bulk of the film is an exciting nightmare.