Rein of Fire

07.02.10

Left: Anthony Mann, The Furies, 1950, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck). Right: Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity, 1944, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff (Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray).


BROOKLYN’S GREATEST GIFT to the world (Walt Whitman runs a close second), Barbara Stanwyck exemplifies a certain kind of big-city dame: whether as slang-slinging nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941) or platinum-blonde femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).

But starting in the 1950s, Stanwyck would slip out of sequined gowns, white-belted dresses, and anklets to don dungarees, flannel, and holsters. The westerns Stanwyck made—most notably Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950); Allan Dwan’s Cattle Queen of Montana (1954); Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957); and, on the small screen, The Big Valley (1965–69)—mark her shift from metropolitan wisecracker/double-crosser to butch frontierswoman, determined to keep (or reclaim) her land. (Her mettle extended beyond the characters she played: Stanwyck, forty-nine at the time, did all her own stunts for Forty Guns, including being dragged by a horse in a windstorm.)

True to the film’s title, Stanwyck’s Vance Jeffords is an avenging woman in The Furies, set in the New Mexico Territory during the 1870s. When Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) threatens to come between Vance and her ranch-owner father, T.C. (Walter Huston), to whom she’s unnaturally attached, the enraged daughter permanently disfigures her stepmother-to-be with a well-aimed pair of scissors. Later betrayed by T.C., Vance will spend years and travel thousands of miles to ruin him.

“Do you mind if I take the reins? I like to know where I’m going,” Vance insists to Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), one of two men (not including Dad) she’s romantically attached to, her feelings often expressed by a hard slap across the face. Stanwyck grounds Mann’s western—which, as a combination of Greek mythology, Freudianism, and scenery chewing from Huston (in his last screen role), often threatens to tip over into hysteria—through her unwavering commitment to her character’s hot-headed dignity. “You’re in love with hate,” Rip tells Vance. Stanwyck makes wrath a virtue, never once letting go of the reins.

Melissa Anderson

The Furies plays July 6 at Film Forum in New York.