Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston are at their fierce finest in this crackling western melodrama by master Hollywood craftsman Anthony Mann. In 1870s New Mexico Territory, megalomaniacal widowed ranch owner T. C. Jeffords (Huston, in his final role) butts heads with his firebrand of a daughter, Vance (Stanwyck), over her dowry, choice of husband, and, finally, ownership of the land itself. Sophisticated in its view of frontier settlement and ablaze with searing domestic drama, The Furies is an often-overlooked treasure of American filmmaking, boasting Oscar–nominated cinematography and vivid supporting turns from Judith Anderson, Wendell Corey, and Gilbert Roland.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD edition for Anthony Mann’s The Furies to Blu-ray, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
Criterion is reusing the same high-def restoration they used for their DVD, which was sourced from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. It’s a shame we’re ultimately only getting an older master (which is now at least 13 years old) but much to my surprise it doesn’t come off looking too bad.
A few marks and small scratches remain (not all that different from the DVD) though I think some of the more minor bits of damage are a little clearer now thanks to the increased resolution. Despite that the image still looks quite clean overall. Film grain looks better and less like noise in comparison to the DVD and detail levels are far sharper, the landscapes and textures delivering the finer points. Some shimmering can be evident in some of the tighter crosshatch or checkered patterns that pop up, but it’s a very mild effect that can more than likely be overlooked.
Grayscale is a bit better but not as clean as I would probably like. Blacks can also come off more like a dark gray, which impacts some of the dawn or dusk sequences. In all, a new scan and restoration could make this look quite sharp I feel, but as it is the end results offer a clear improvement over the old DVD, which I always found impressive to begin with.
The film’s soundtrack now gets a lossless, single-channel PCM upgrade. Again, the track is clean, and dialogue is easy to hear, and the the score does manage to reach some decent highs without coming off screechy. It does its job.
Outside of an image gallery Criterion impressively ports all of the special features over from their 2008 DVD edition while adding a brand-new 29-minute interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith. Smith, as she usually does—and does so well—covers the film from just about every angle possible, relating the film to Mann’s other output around that time, how the film fits with Mann’s apparent obsession with Shakespeare’s King Lear (similar plot elements appear in a number of Mann’s other films), goes over the novel, its writer, Niven Busch, and the adaptation by Charles Schnee. She also takes pleasure in talking about her favourite moments and elements found within it and looks at the film’s photography and its more noir-ish aspects. Like her other pieces it’s a very passionate and insightful discussion on the merits of the film.
The rest of the material is presented in the same fashion as it was on the old Criterion DVD. I admittedly sampled the material this time around just to confirm some items, but my feelings are generally the same.
First up is an audio commentary by film historian and western expert, Jim Kitses. It’s a scholarly commentary, and it’s clear he’s reading from notes since it comes off stiff most of the time, but it’s a decent track. Calling the film a “hybrid genre ragbag” later on in the track (the film combining western, melodrama, and a heavy amount of film noir) he starts off right away proclaiming the film one of Mann’s best works, one that’s quite underappreciated. At times he does seem to repeat what’s going on on screen, but doesn’t fall into this trap often. He concentrates mostly on the psychological aspects of the film, such as oedipal issues and sexual tensions. He mentions the original source novel sporadically, noting key differences, and talks about the screen play. He also covers Mann and his career at this time, comparing this film with other films in style and character, and also gives brief histories on some of the performers including Stanwyck and Huston, as well as other members of the cast. And every once in a while he brings up Jeanine Basinger’s book on Anthony Mann to either expand on something she mentions or even (as I’m sure he feels) corrects her. It’s a good commentary filled with a lot of info, but can come off dry on occasion because of the obvious note reading, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can make the track harder to listen to.
Next up is a 1967 interview conducted with Anthony Mann and shown on a British program called, simply, The Movies, in a segment titled “Action Speaks Louder Than Words.” According to the intro for the program this appears to have been shown on television right before the BBC was going to be televising a selection of Mann's films over a weekend. Lasting about -minutes and presented in 1.33:1, the segment features Mann discussing his early career, how he got into directing, and themes in his films. He discusses his thoughts on “heroism” and then also talks about violence in his films, which he uses to grab his audience and heighten the drama (Kitses also discusses this in his commentary and actually pretty much repeats what Mann says here). He also talks about film as a visual medium and how an image can convey so much, bringing up one of his favourite directors, F.W. Murnau. One thing I’m not completely sure on is the use of clips from Mann’s films in the segment. While the piece shows a clip from one of Murnau’s films, it appears that Criterion has placed production stills over what is supposed to be clips from Mann’s work. They had to do this with one of the supplements on their [original DVD edition for Straw Dogs] due to rights issues. While there is no mention of this in the intro text for the segment on the menu I suspect this was done on Criterion’s part. As the interviewer discusses techniques apparently used in one film clip, we’re only shown a film still, [the clean quality of which looks out of place in comparison to the rough quality of the program,] but I gathered we were supposed to be seeing action on screen based on the descriptions of the interviewer. This doesn’t interfere at all with the overall interview but I felt I should mention it.
The next supplement is called Intimate Interviews: Walter Huston and if you’re looking for a real interview with Huston you’re out of luck. According to the introductory notes “Intimate Interviews” was a 1930 series that played in the theaters before the show. The idea was audience members could send in letters suggesting someone they would like to see an interview with and then eventually one would be filmed. If they’re all like this then they’re pretty much puff pieces that are all staged, though this one is somewhat amusing thanks to Huston. The 8-minute segment begins with our interviewer, Dorothy West, showing up at Huston’s home and despite him not wanting to be interviewed she manages to sneak in anyway. Then she asks questions about acting and his general interests. This is really supposed to be a fun little piece so you don’t get any real deep insight into much of anything, but Huston, playing himself as sort of a smart ass (who ends the interview trying to ask Dorothy out) makes it easy to get through. Anybody expecting an actual interview, though, will be quite disappointed.
The final big supplement is an interview with Anthony Mann’s daughter Nina Mann, recorded exclusively for Criterion [in 2008]. The 16-minute interview, enhanced for widescreen televisions, presents Nina talking about her father’s work and The Furies in general. She discusses how she came to appreciate her father’s work as art (she states later on in the piece how when she was younger she was usually just more concerned about whether they were successful or not) and goes into the themes she’s found in them, also mentioned elsewhere on this disc (heroism, use of violence to shock the audience, how more information can be relayed through an image, etc.) and even goes into his upbringing, which I have to say I was very surprised by. I also liked a bit where she discusses how she tries to figure out what her father was thinking at the time while watching his films. Nice interview that rounds out the set.
The disc then closes with the same theatrical trailer that was found on the DVD. As mentioned before, a stills gallery has been dropped.
Criterion also carries over the booklet and the Niven Busch novel on which the film is based. The novel's dimensions have been altered to fit the Blu-ray height, so the novel has more pages, 299 instead of 267. I had eventually read the book after receiving the DVD edition, and I confess I didn't re-read it for this. While I remember the ending differing from the film's (the film's ending feeling a bit, er, "off"), I still recall the film ended up being fairly faithful to the novel in the end. I always thought this was a great inclusion and I'm so happy to see Criterion has carried it over.
The booklet appears to be the same:
[The booklet first] includes an essay by Robin Wood who obviously loves the film but can’t call it perfect. And then there’s an interview with Mann from a 1957 issue of Cahiers du cinema where some info is repeated from other portions of this set, but we do get some stories about Mann working with James Stewart. He also discusses some directors who he thinks have a strong career ahead of them. An amusing bit is he seems most impressed with some young newcomer named Stanley Kubrick who has just come off of The Killing. I guess I found that sort of humourous since this youngun', Kubrick, would replace Mann as director on the film Spartacus a few years later. I was also amused by a bit at the end of the interview where Mann appears to confuse [Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir]. In all the whole booklet makes for an excellent read.
Still a solid collection of material, with Smith's contribution nicely rounding things out.
The high-def presentation does offer a better image over Criterion's previous DVD edition, though not a huge one. At the very least, Criterion carries over most of the supplements, including the original novel on which the film is based, while also offering a new academic interview.