Nowadays we call them noir, but back in the 1940s and ’50s they didn’t have a name. Born out of 1930s hard-boiled novels and an influx of European filmmakers fleeing fascism, films noir (as French film critics later coined them) were everything glitzy Hollywood productions were not. The endings were downbeat and fatalistic. The protagonists were anti-heroes—no better or worse than the antagonists. The settings were urban. And they were presented with style: moody black and white photography full of shadows and smoke. If you thought they were popular then, you ought to check out a film noir festival today.

But is noir genre or aesthetic? The jury’s still out on that one, but we know that noir as an aesthetic, an attitude, an approach, can easily be transported from post-WWII American urban centers to anyplace, anytime with striking results. Case in point: director Anthony Mann’s exemplary noir on the open range, The Furies—newly released on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Barbara Stanwyck as Vance Jeffords and Gilbert Roland as Juan Herrera in The Furies. Photos courtesy The Criterion Collection.

Born in San Diego in 1906, Mann started in New York theater before answering the call to Hollywood in 1937, working his way up from casting director to director for low-budget B-programmers. Then came a three-year string of tough-as-nails urban dramas about government agents and police detectives. In eight pictures, Mann mastered the form. Now he needed a new location to ply his trade. Naturally, Mann headed West.

1950 was a banner year for Mann: In addition to The Furies, he made Winchester ’73 and Devil’s Doorway. All three are special, but The Furies is as close as Mann got to true Greek drama. The story concerns T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a New Mexico cattle baron who is more interested in the land he owns than the cattle on it. The Furies spans everything the light touches, including the former residents T.C. took it from in the first place. Not that he minds them being there—T.C. views himself as a benevolent feudal lord—but when the bank tells T.C. he has to kick them off or they won’t back the mortgage, T.C. gives the order to have them pushed off. 

“Everyone but the Herreras,” T.C.’s adult daughter, Vance, responds. She has a thing for Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), so T.C. relents. Naturally: She’s played by Barbara Stanwyck, after all.

Few Hollywood actors were as versatile as Stanwyck, and The Furies wasn’t her first rodeo. Nor would it be her last. Stanwyck was as adept with a horse as she was with a screwball quip or viperous insinuation. Watching her go head to head with Huston in his final role is half the fun of the film. The other half: watching Mann slap the story back down to Earth anytime it heads toward heroics; Victor Milner’s sumptuous black and white photography and Judith Anderson’s turn as Flo Burnett, T.C.’s potential suitor.

The Furies isn’t a perfect movie, but its off-kilter approach delivers good, pulpy fun in a way that feels astonishingly fresh for a 71-year-old film. Criterion’s set includes a top-notch high-definition restoration of the movie, a bevy of interviews, commentaries and essays, and a new printing of Niven Busch’s 1948 novel on which the film is based. 

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 38, No. 36, “Noir on the range.”