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    A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Renter's Guide to Film Noir
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Monday
Nov212011

KISS ME DEADLY CRITERION DVD

A bull looking for a china shop. Courtesy Criterion ProductionsMike Hammer, as portrayed by Ralph Meeker, is Noir’s ultimate blunt object. For Mike, thinking causes confusion, but action always provides a solution, no matter how destructive. If Mike can’t punch it, break it, drive it, sell it, shoot it or fuck it, he’s not interested; Mike’s a pure American male.

Robert Aldrich’s direction and A.I. Bezzerides’ screenplay transposes Mickey Spillane’s private eye to the screen as brutal, simple-minded, heedless and atavistic, driven by an American’s adolescent fixation with girls, gizmos and guns. Mike enjoys himself, but his antics exact a high price: the end of the world.

Careening home in his sports car one night, Hammer almost mows down a desperate hitchhiker. She’s escaped from a nearby asylum, but not for long. Her pursuers run Mike’s car off the road and leave him to die in the wreckage. Half-conscious, he hears the screaming hitchhiker being tortured to death. With the help of his dedicated - if masochistic - secretary, Vilma, Mike tracks down the killers. Unknown gangsters plant bombs in his car; strange women offer themselves; a sinister secret is somehow contained in a too-warm, glowing, growling leather-bound box: the ‘Great Whatsit’ that everyone kills to attain, and the inspiration for the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The story tears along. Aldrich distracts us, and Hammer, from his violent quest with cool cars, sharp suits, stellar babes and bachelor-pad oddities, like a primitive reel-to-reel phone answering machine.

Meeker’s character’s an amoral pig, which he freely admits. His contempt for the world is genuine and crippling. His personality makes him unfit for any profession but private eye. That is, he’s lazy, sadistic, likes spying on people and feels morally superior. And in this universe, Hammer’s the hero.

The repellent, charming destructive energy that fuels Hammer is reflected in the world around him. Everyone grabs what they want with no sense of consequences. Because Aldrich, like Hammer, is neither a poet nor a deep thinker  - like Hammer, he’s a hard-ass, if occasionally discursive, problem-solver - Kiss Me is unusually satisfying as both a tough-minded, cautionary sleigh-ride of thrills and a cold-hearted metaphor for the breakdown of society.

With her androgynous haircut, languorous sexuality, little-girl voice and constantly shifting loyalties, GabyGaby at her most lucid. Courtesy Criterion Productions Rodgers provides a fitting coda to fifteen years of duplicitous Noir femmes fatale. She incarnates a singular, dissolute, randomly horny and utterly relaxed ruthlessness. Her identity changes according to the company she keeps, her social role alters as her ambition takes root, her ambitions grow as she learns the extent of her sexual power and her sexual power breeds suicidal megalomania. If Gaby Rodgers herself - Gaby the person, not her character - was in fact neither insane nor distracted to the point of schizophrenia, then her performance is one for the ages.

This is a very different entertainment than the A-picture, Hollywood slickness of Double Indemnity or The Killers.  In most noir, the hero’s loss of innocent is represented as a loss of faith, a calamitous acquiring of cynicism springing from tragic death, broken hearts or dashed expectations. Hammer never had any faith to begin with; he’s just a nasty guy. His comeuppance consists of learning how just how ruthless, brutal, greedy and destructive his enemies can be. And all this time he thought he was the toughest monkey in the urban jungle...

 It’s an alienated, debased portrait, and a visceral prophesy. Robert Aldrich’s nihilism is boundless; he’s determined not only to kill everyone in the story, but also to bring an end to the romanticization of cynicism, violence and self-made morality that comprises Noir. He succeeds as Sam Pecinpah did with The Wild Bunch, by so raising the stakes that no one could possibly follow.

            Criterion’s extras include a short, revealing excerpt from a documentary about screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, who also wrote Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Bezzerides says flat out that the speed with which he wrote the screenplay reflects the depth of his contempt for the novel. Bezzerides chucked Spillane’s ideas and changed everything from the locale to the McGuffin. Director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), hilariously deadpan as ever, also trashes the book and Spillane’s aggressive simple-mindedness. Spillane – who sold 24 million Mike Hammer books in the early ‘50’s alone - appears in the Bezzerides’ documentary to express his baffled distaste for the film. Unsurprisingly, he has no clue how utterly he’s been outmaneuvered and rendered obsolete. Bezzerides and Aldrich found the themes of Spillane’s novel repulsive, and Kiss Me – shot in 22 days! - is their savage rejoinder. Criterion also includes a self-serving doc on Spillane, who is nothing if not self-serving. After watching considerably more sophisticated men trash him, Spillane’s confidence in his own Neanderthal vision and methods ought to be a little sad. In fact, just like the film, it’s funny as hell.

© 2011 David N Meyer

 

Sunday
Nov202011

WHEN WORLD'S COLLIDE; LARS TRIER'S MELANCHOLIA

By Marcus Liberski

I’m a great fan of Lars von Trier’s work. As a Dane, I grew up with his films and media appearances. He is one of the most innovative and groundbreaking directors alive and capable of masterpieces, as he has proven.

The financing for Trier’s films comes from institutional investors across Europe. Contrary to the U.S. system, the European states heavily support the film industry, giving money the filmmakers have no obligation to return and so they never worry about box office numbers.

State financing requires extensive applications. It takes weeks and months to create and compile the necessary material. In the Danish film industry, the myth goes that Trier marks his application with a couple of crosses and his signature and always gets what he asks for. That’s a good indication of Trier’s special status within the Danish and European film industry.

Trier co-created the seminal film company Zentropa, named after the American title of Trier’s first film Europa, as counterweight to the commercially oriented Nordisk Film (Nordic Films), the oldest, still active film production company in the world. With Zentropa, Trier got the freedom he wanted, with no producer trying to control him. The company’s influence shows in the number of great films they have produced, including Thomas Vinterberg’s masterpiece Festen (The Celebration).

Zentropa also launched Pussy Power, which supposedly produced the first porn films for women. Sadly, Zentropa fell victim for the growing New Puritanism that rules the world these days. With a growing number of international co-producers, English investors forced Zentropa to cease their operations in porn. Zentropa recently merged with Nordisk Film.

Maybe these changes reduced Trier’s desire to innovate and experiment. With Melancholia Trier attempts a more commercial, audience-friendly film, although nudity, as always in his pictures, plays a pivotal role. Instead of making a controversial film, Trier, whom Helen Mirren recently described as the film industry’s version of the punk rock movement, created controversy at his press conference at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. After he announced that he understood and felt sympathy for Hitler, the Festival declared Trier persona-non-grata indefinitely – a major blow, since he has been a fixture at the festival for years.The man himself

The first half of Melancholia centers around the main character, Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding; the second half concerns a giant planet, Melancholia, approaching Earth. We know from the opening sequence that Melancholia will destroy our planet. It’s not clear whether the guests at Justine's wedding are aware of the looming catastrophe.

Deploying tropes that appeared in Antichrist, Melancholia begins with a prologue in slow motion, accompanied by opera. This time the prologue – a long montage – aims for tone and symbolism instead of portraying a traumatic event in a poetic manner, as in Antichrist. Obviously inspired by Kubrick’s opening of Eyes Wide Shut, when Nicole Kidman takes off her underwear and sits on the toilet, Trier opens Melancholia with an extreme close-up of Dunst with greasy hair and no makeup, looking exhausted and very human – deconstructing her glamorous Hollywood image. The montage continues with symbolic images that makes no immediate sense and concludes with Earth being swallowed by Melancholia. While the prologue in Antichrist, shot at 1000 frames per second with the specialized Phantom Camera, was breathtaking and terrifying, Melancholia’s equally gorgeous opening seems flat and farfetched.

Another Trier-trademark is to divide his films into chapters. In Melancholia there are only two. They demarcate the two acts, which feature two different protagonists. Justine stars in the first and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), in the second. Both actors appear in each other’s chapters as supporting characters. This division provides a deeper understanding of the characters psyche and investigates their differences. Faced with the same challenges, the two sisters react in opposite ways. While Justine embraces the approaching planet and seems to find peace in its mighty, Claire feels only fear. They both react purely emotionally without any rationality – a major theme in the film as their irrationality is juxtaposed with male rationality and belief in science.

A memorable shot of the two sisters observing snow falling on a sunny summer day, perfectly captures female irrationality. The two women watch at the snow, which falls in defiance of all logic, and recognize and appreciate its beauty. In much of his prior work, Trier dealt with the theme of women’s irrationality and their surrender to the will of their emotions versus men’s rationality and belief in science.

The TV-show Riget (The Kingdom), maybe Trier’s most important work, depicts a spiritual world infiltrating the world of science at the best-equipped hospital in Northern Europe, which was built to demonstrate human control over life and death. Only an old woman believes in the spirits, but the doctors – the men of science - ridicule her. In Antichrist, Willem Dafoe believes so strongly in the effect of psychotherapy that he ignores the worrying signals of his wife’s grief. In Melancholia, Claire doubts her husband’s scientific reassurances. She instinctively worries about the approaching planet even though the scientists are certain that Melancholia won’t hit Earth. In these depictions of the differences between men and women lies the momentary greatness of Melancholia. Kiefer Sutherland appears as the uber-rational alpha-male, and where women’s embrace of the irrational seems dangerous and flawed from a rational point of view, Sutherland’s character’s blind belief in science appears even more deadly. This harkens back to Dafoe’s uncritical conviction in Antichrist.

Trier never judges his women characters as they, in a sense, portray him. Trier seems to favor female irrationality over men’s mindless belief in logic and science, which the cataclysm in Melancholia clearly illustrates. Partly because of his identification with his female character, I don’t subscribe to the choir that accuses Trier of misogyny. These accusations are a result of a misinterpretation of the director’s collective work. His attempts to understand the female psyche should be admired. Many male directors through history have failed to even make this attempt.

Trier makes melodrama, and Melancholia is no exception. The extreme family relations seem over the top even for this director. The mother hates the father, who doesn’t care. The sisters seem distant from each other, but Claire’s (Gainsbourg) husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) pays for the extravagant wedding that Justine couldn’t care less about. The characters appear somewhat constructed and caricatured. The writing leaves the actors with a difficult task and the normally magnificent Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) overplays in her portrait of the disillusioned and cynical mother. Surprisingly though, considering the material but not unusual for Trier’s films, most of his cast have never been better. Kirsten Dunst deservedly won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her nuanced and realistic portrayal. Playing the chronically depressed Justine, she captures the mood swings, erratic behavior and blank stares that characterize depression. Trier said that when he lost his intended lead, Penelope Cruz (who chose Pirates of the Caribbean 4 instead), he spoke to Dunst, who confided that she used to suffer from depression. Her experiences shows in the performance.

Gainsbourg, once again, performs as if her life depends on it (Starring in Antichrist, she deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes in 2009). Her complete and utter terror as Melancholia approaches Earth seems real and quite different from the grief-stricken and deranged character she played in Antichrist.

The surprise of the film is an energetic and funny Kiefer Sutherland. In a thankless role as Claire’s wealthy, science-obsessed husband, he gives the character depth. Sutherland dismisses his rational and self-assured rejection of the possibility of a collision between the two planets with an increasing uneasiness. Although Trier wrote the script too fast (6 weeks), his direction of actors appears stronger than ever.

While the performances thrive, the camera suffers. In order to secure the best possible performances, Trier turns to flexible blocking. In Element of Crime and Europa, his camerawork resembles Kubrick’s, but without Kubrick’s gift for carefully planned frames and camera moves. Trier surrendered that kind of control to provide his actors freedom to improvise and experiment. Although his digital images suffer a rendered, computer-like depiction of color, it enables him to keep rolling, and he famously encourages his actors to try different things on each take. This technique compromises the beauty of his frames, which often look messy and unstructured. Using mostly handheld, the new collaboration with DP Manuel Alberto Claro doesn’t work as well as when Trier shoots the film himself. Trier expressed satisfaction with the collaboration after he controversially criticized DP Anthony Dod Mantle’s work on Antichrist. He felt Antichrist was too beautiful and was happier with the disorderly frames of Melancholia. I disagree. The lack of continuity and the jump cuts felt motivated and justified in Antichrist, but seem random and thoughtless in Melancholia.

As opposed to the frames progressing the narrative, the symbolic frames are exquisitely composed and stay with you long after the film ends. The shot of a horse collapsing, or Justine floating down a creek in her wedding dress, are poetic and evoked Trier’s most significant inspiration, the Russian director Andrei Tarkovski. The difference between them is that Tarkovski knew how to be subtle. Trier’s symbolism is heavy and obvious. A perfect illustration is a wide shot of Justine bathing naked and peacefully in the light of the approaching Melancholia. Justine finds peace from her depression in this giant object of doom, and metaphorically makes love to it as she lies at the side of a creek in a stunning shot, surrounded by nature, facing the oncoming planet naked. You won’t find symbolism more pronounced than that…

Trier makes Hollywood movies disguised as art films. His movies are more original, but built on the same structural rules. Melancholia is flawed, but not disappointing. At first I thought it lacked content under its appealing surface, but after thinking and writing about it, I realize that its content incites self-reflection as it entertains. Although somewhat repetitive, Trier’s two latest films show a director far from the artistic crisis that some suggest. Arriving at a new stage in his already impressive career, Trier’s directorial voice still seems strong. His capability to establish a tone amazes. The feeling of melancholia lies heavy over the entire picture in tone, music, color, pace and performance. The choice between melancholia and determinism or fatalism avoids clichés and speaks to Trier’s sense of innovation. Even though we know the end from the beginning, Trier makes sure that it’s worth the wait. And let me just finish by saying: what an end.

 Marcus Liberski, a film director and cinema scholar, is pursuing his Masters Degree in Film Production at the University of Southern California.

Friday
Nov182011

THE THIN RED LINE


For Terrence Malick (Badlands,Days of Heaven), the world is a cathedral. Even the most venal acts of man take place in sanctified space because it’s all sanctified. Malick hears celestial music emanating from the sky and trees, sunlight piercing a forest, water running over rocks. He communicates the celestiality he sees and hears through film’s essence, light. No director save Godard so adores or is so attuned to the luminescence of the world. Malick’s pursuit of that luminescence, and the indirect naturalist cadences of his dialogue, makes him a poetic realist.

The natural world cries out, begging man to see the potential for transcendence. But man’s too neurotic and self-invovled to heed the message. It’s not that he’d necessarily rather kill. He just wants a moment’s peace from the questions that torment him, and that rampant nature underscores. Might killing or avoiding being killed still even one of the voices in his head? Sadly, no. Men argue, mostly with themselves, about abstractions that the nature surrounding them—not to mention the other men trying to murder them—renders moot. Nature goes about its business, and that business contains no mercy. Malick embraces it all.

The Thin Red Line opens with a crocodile that seems to be Satan incarnate sliding into a scummy green pond—a transcendently beautiful scummy green pond—and sinking out of sight as apocalyptic church music soars. There, as they said in Vietnam, it is. We are entering a jungle, and it’s not that the jungle doesn’t like us. The jungle doesn’t care. The law of the jungle is exactly that, and it is that law which will keep the jungle what it is. But this indifferent jungle contains much man-made evil. That croc’s swimming around in the scummy green ponds of our souls. It’s bound to resurface somewhere. Keep heading into the jungle, and Satan’s going to manifest.

And boy does he ever. Based on James Jones’s novel of the American invasion of the Japanese-held Guadalcanal island in World War II, The Thin Red Line presents combat as a fever dream, and we are the dreamers. Malick edits so that every cut—every single cut to a human being—puts us instantly into the psychological state of the person he’s cut to. No film was ever edited like this, a $70 million indie art-house war epic that hurls us from one character to another for 171 minutes. Wounded men shrieking for enough morphine to kill them, soldiers within arm’s length shooting one another, generals throwing psychotic hissy fits (Nick Nolte as the embodiment of abusive paternal rage), whatever. The action might dominate the moment, but the men’s internal dialogues are not altered by the mayhem around them, or by the subsequent peace and quiet.

Criterion’s print captures all of Malick’s luminescence. The Extras feature a telling interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, and a number of actors. The most articulate proves to be Sean Penn. While everyone’s in awe of Malick, Penn best describes what it meant for all these stars and 22-year-old then-unknowns to head off to Australia for who knew how long a shoot for the minimum possible money: “Career suicide.”

Thursday
Nov172011

SHEEP HEAD NOIR FROM THE FROZEN NORTH

There’s much to be learned about Iceland from the bleak new noir Jar City:

1) Hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks pull up to drive-in takeaway windows—at establishments where they’re all crushed out on the serving girl—and order ‘the usual’: sheep head. ‘Sheep head’ sounds like Icelandic slang for almost anything other than a sheep head, but no...The serving girl hands the hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dick a luscious cooked sheep’s head under plastic wrap with mashed potatoes on the side, all ready for the microwave.Can I get that to go?

2) Hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks consume their pre-cooked sheep heads in their lonely apartments by gripping the sheep head at the jaw hinge, tearing off the upper half of the head, holding that head-half just above the sheep teeth and gnawing off succulent, juicy hunks.

3) Sheep head takes some chewing.

4) There are no attractive women in Iceland except the serving girl at the sheep head takeaway. Every other woman in Iceland is either a) side-show overweight or b) past seventy and really bitter.

5) Icelandic men are either a) tall, spare and monosyllabic or b) horribly fat, multi-chinned and physically degraded.

6) Icelanders are perpetually cranky.

7) Or drunk.

8) Or both.

9) Cranky/drunk Icelanders can tell hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks to piss off with no apparent criminal, civil or physical repercussions.

10) The most wounding insult for an Icelandic man is to be called a pussy.

11) Icelandic men who don’t chain-smoke or gnaw mad sheep head are pussies. Icelandic women tell them so, right to their faces.

12) Icelandic men attempting to order a vegan meal in an Icelandic cafeteria-roadhouse are told: “You’ll find none of that guacamole bullshit here, asshole!”

13) Icelandic men and women really do wear those frightening sweaters with antler designs and buttons the size of Communion wafers.

14) The landscape in Iceland makes everyone feel insignificant and temporary upon this earth. They then drink to excess and feel cranky.

15) Forensic police in Iceland handle decades-old corpses without benefit of rubber gloves.

16) All Icelanders are related to one another through a confined and isolated pool of common genetic material. Yet none of them sit on their porches playing the theme to Deliverance on their banjos.

17) Everywhere in Iceland looks simultaneously end-of-the-world apocalyptic, industrially wastelandic, repetitively bourgeois and smugly moderne.

18) Icelandic doctor/expert types have perfectly symmetrical, perfectly groomed snow-white beards.

19) In Iceland there is no shortage of thick white steam. It blows across bleak Icelandic highways in clingy, lingering, existential clouds.

20) Obese, multi-chinned, raving homicidal Icelandic loonies escape from solitary confinement with ease.

21) In Iceland, even the happy endings are tragic.

There’s a wonderful moment in the haunting, lyrical, self-consciously beautiful and faithless 1997 Swedish noir Insomnia when Stellan Skarsgård attempts to interrogate a surly Norwegian high school rapist. “I don’t speak fucking Swedish,” the dude tells Stellan. And since neither do we, we suddenly understand, without excessive exposition on the director’s part, that Stellan is a fish out of water, a herring out of Stockholm, flummoxed by the incomprehensible ways of his brunette neighbors to the east. And they are equally baffled by him.

Similar moments abound in the astonishing, streamlined, brutal Danish cinéma vérité street sagas Pusher (1996), Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands (2004) and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005). It’s not clear which Scandinavian city hosts these gritty, post-Scorsese, post-Dogme blood-fests. Wherever it is, it offers plenty of smack, crank, blow, whores and hoodlums killing each other over the right to sell same. The Pusher protagonists must cope with their own rabidly self-destructive natures, constantly escalating social/financial debt and extremely violent immigrant neighbors and co-workers. Some of these immigrants hail from the Middle East and some from Mother Russia. Their violence pushes the Danish (Swedish? Norwegian?) locals to behave even more like degraded animals than they usually might, which is plenty.

The Pusher series passed straight to DVD without benefit of American theatrical release. The Pushers form the most engaging, rigorous and thrilling body of thrillers made in the last decade, and the finest trilogy of films, period. Each one bests the last. Each is more violent, direct, credible and better cast than the previous. And each features mercifully less Swedish (Danish? Norwegian?) death metal on its rigorously ambient soundtrack. The only other trilogy that constantly improved would be Leone’s Clint Eastwood Westerns. If you disagree, please go rent Godfather III.

Jar City comes from Iceland, a land we’ve been indoctrinated to believe consists of high-cheekboned girls and boys giddily bouncing around low-ceilinged bars listening to Sigur Rós cover John Phillip Sousa or something equally Icelandically loveable and incongruous. Or else they’re all getting along famously while sneering at outsiders who don’t share their island utopia and limited, self-regenerating high-cheekboned gene pool. Perhaps if Iceland, Sweden and Denmark weren’t held as the very models of social utopia, the deep strain of hopelessness that infects these far northern noirs might be less shocking. Clearly American capitalist society generates crippling nihilism and inertia in every sensitive citizen. But way up and over there they’ve got in its place socialized medicine and free bus service, etc.. What’s bothering them all so?

Whatever social benefits he enjoys, the hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dick at the core of Jar City is being devoured from the inside out by something. And so, apparently, is everyone else (except maybe the vegan-ordering, non-smoking, non-sheep-head gnawing assistant homicide dick: you know, the pussy.) And as they are being eaten from within, recurring close-ups of steaming, viscous gobbets of animal flesh being shoveled into gaping Icelandic maws would suggest that Icelanders are simultaneously devouring their culture and taking little nourishment from the meal. Everyone stares—with a full belly—shell-shocked into the Icelandic middle distance with such resignation, such knowing acquiescence to Lutheran predestination. And yet, they strive to make order out of Icelandic chaos.

Jar City shares with Insomnia and the Pusher trilogy a believable, tragic sense of ever-present doom and an atmosphere in which every action—except those that stave off existential nausea by way of degraded kicks—is demonstrably meaningless. The spare, tough style of these films mirrors the air of dread and futility, of the claustrophobia of the social and interior prisons confining the characters. There’s a welcome Scandinavian horror of decoration driving Jar City, and the director holds the mood with only an occasional slip into self-indulgence.

Given that noirs are usually set in big cities, it might seem strange that so tiny a population could develop unsolvable crimes. But in such an isolated place, everyone’s business is everyone business. Which is why, of course, everyone’s becomes furtive and rotted from within by all their repression. With all those prying eyes, the social contract survives only under an self-imposed ethos of wide-spread passive aggression. No one can tell anyone off to their face—everybody has to see everybody else at the supermarket the next day. So everyone conceals their grudges and seethes.

Or murders.

Thursday
Nov172011

THE FURIES

 

This human being possess identifiable gender characteristics.Can you name them? © Paramount Pictures

Winchester ’73, Mann’s revenge saga starring Jimmy Stewart (and featuring Rock Hudson in his screen debut as an Indian chief), seems closer to naturalism than any prior Mann film. Characters walked, talked, stood, shot and rode much as human beings actually might. Gone was the over-stylized speaking, the stone-faced men, the constantly hysterical women. The pacing, too, seemed to mark a new Mann-gone was the usual sense of glaciers whizzing past. So, it’s reasonable to assume that his following films would become even more naturalistic, more reasonable in tone and narrative, less operatic. But, no…

Mann is tricky. His films are acquired tastes. He made a couple of classic noirs that are almost impossible to sit through (please see: glaciers, whizzing, above) and yet irresistible—T-Men and Border Incident. And he made Raw Deal, an almost perfect, perfectly cheesy, perfectly perverse noir and the only noir in which a woman provides the narrative voice-over. Mann then brought his noir sensibility to the Western: humans treat each other poorly, love spells doom, men’s obsessions obliterate all common sense or worthy purpose, the landscape-the world itself-overwhelms human intention and all effort comes to pretty much naught. Unless that effort involves killing someone, and then it’s rewarded, no matter how difficult the aftermath. Lots of people die in Mann westerns. It’s usually the vanity of others that kills them.

The Furies - Mann’s first film after Winchester ’73- contains all the Mannian tropes, for good or ill: clumsy transitions; weird gigantic close-ups of actors speaking in forced monotones; vengeful murder and vengeance, period; supposedly sex-object dudes who behave like walking corpses and the overly-ardent women who love them. It’s an unsettling mix of Mann at his most naturalist (Walter Huston playing the daddy from hell with such force of personality and humor) and most artificial (Gilbert Roland and Wendell Corey doing their best I-Am-Robot impressions).

And yet, The Furies remains Mann’s masterpiece, the apotheosis of his style and themes. Barbara Stanwyck plays the toughest, most daddy-fixated woman in the history of Westerns. Her relationship with Walter Huston is astonishingly perverse, pretty much the sickest father/daughter connection until Walter’s son John made all The Furies’ implications manifest in Chinatown.

Victor Milner provides the epic, operatic cinematography, and he had shot 129 films prior to The Furies, including Unfaithfully Yours for Preston Sturges. Milner holds to Mann’s John Fordian motifs-the sky dominates, the earth reaches to the far horizon and the protagonists stand alone and abandoned in between, floating above one, crushed by the other. Milner brings the same grand aesthetic to interiors and close-ups, occasionally with unintentionally camp results.

The Furies concerns will, and how the world bends in the face of it. Stanwyck wants what she wants, and when she and her dad’s wills align, none can stand against them. But they clash, inevitably, and the collateral damage scorches the earth and the soul of both combatants.

Maybe it’s intentional that none of the male characters can match Huston and certainly all the women pale in the face of Stanwyck’s gender-bending power. Mann suggests a hierarchical universe, one predicated on Nietzsche (or the Hollywood system). Mann’s ruthless view of human nature elevates the story to another realm of profundity. Though the Furies claims to be a Western, it plays like the Old Testament, or Greek tragedy: when the gods rumble, look out below.

 

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