Friday, February 7, 2014

The Furies vs. Silvertip: Westerns and Ambiguity

I recently finished Max Brand's 1933/1941 Silvertip, a pulp Western book, and Anthony Mann's 1950 The Furies, a non-pulp Western movie; and I'm trying to close that circle. How are these both Westerns when they feel so different?

What it is: Silvertip:
Silvertip tells the story of a larger-than-life, badass, oath-bound rambler; after mistakenly gunning down a young Mexican man, Silvertip promises to replace him; this leads him to a land-war between an evil white clan, the Drummons, and the vengeance-obsessed Mexican family, the Montereys. He fights, he wins, he continues to ramble.

It's very straight forward and the only bit of ambiguity is when Silvertip seems to recognize that the Monterey quest for vengeance is soul-eroding and family-destroying. E.g., Papa Monterey is devastated to lose his son--because he trained his son to enact his vengeance. Then, when Silvertip starts fulfilling those quests, Monterey doesn't seem too bothered by losing his original son. But even with that drop of ambiguity, Silvertip goes on, does the violence thing, and moves on.

What it is: The Furies:
The Furies... is a little more confusing: old rancher T.C. Jeffords is a king on his land (The Furies), so powerful that he issues his own money. He's obsessed with his late wife, uninterested in his son, and very VERY close to his daughter Vance. (She's the only one who matters--T.C.'s son is barely in the story, almost as if he's only here to give us exposition.)

Vance is very friendly but not romantic with Mexican squatter Juan Herrera; Vance even helps to protect the Herreras when the other squatters are being evicted. Vance isn't interested in Juan because she's interested in oily gambler Rip Darrow, who thinks he has a claim to the Darrow Strip, a strip of land belonging to Jeffords/The Furies. But when T.C. offers Rip money to leave his daughter alone, Rip takes the money, leaving Vance to become virgin queen of the Furies.

Into this stable situation, T.C. brings a beautiful older woman, Flo Burnett, who makes it clear to Vance that she's a gold-digger who wants to get rid of Vance (by sending her to Europe). Vance throws scissors at Burnett and runs away to the Herreras. T.C. hunts her down and burns out the Herreras, even hanging Juan for stealing a horse. Vance vows vengeance on her father and goes out to buy up all of the money he issued at pennies on the dollar.

T.C. desperately needs money, even going to his now-scarred wife Flo to ask for the money he gave her. She explains that she can't give him the money, because then he'll leave her, a rejection that T.C. takes in stride, expressing affection and respect for this scarred gold-digger. Even T.C.'s accountant reveals that he's been stealing money from T.C., but is willing to give it back to help out; T.C. refuses the offer, laughing at the betrayal.

Then T.C. gets an offer to buy his cattle, and he rides out, to prove that he's still king of his land. His men sing songs about how great he is.

Then Vance reveals her double-cross to her dad, buying his cattle with his own (worthless) money. T.C takes even this in stride, saying that he was always happiest when building an empire, not holding it. Rip and Vance plan to marry. Then Juan's mom kills T.C.

So... yeah. Silvertip is easy to summarize because it hews close to standard Western tropes--land-war, wandering gun-slinger, the beloved daughter as romantic object--and it keeps pretty far from ambiguity or other genre tropes.

By contrast The Furies has a Western setting, with some traditional Western tropes--cattle baron, the round-up, dealing with a (crooked-ish) bank, squatters/land-war. It also has a noir-ish touch, with its ambiguities, especially around love and loyalty. (Director Mann started in noir, so you can make that connection.) You can even see a certain Shakespearean family drama--King Lear, if you like this essay. Maybe there's even a bit of the women's weepy genre with the daughter caught between two-three men (Juan, Rip, T.C.).

And, of course, let's nod towards the mythological aspect of The Furies: the punishers who are especially vicious towards those who betray their family.

It is, in other words, a perfect film to write a paper about. (Sample: Freudian: Vance uses her mother's GIANT scissors to castrate her father's sexual interest in the other woman by scarring her.)

I repeat: So?
Well, The Furies is a bit of a mess at the end: T.C.'s vicious hanging of Juan is all but forgotten except as pretext for tragic murder; asshole Rip Darrow gets sentimentalized as soon-to-be proper husband; even Vance gets a little tamed, accepting her father as a third member in the family/ownership of the Furies.

So to make a happy ending, so many of the ambiguities get washed away in a way that feels artificial, which isn't really a problem for Silvertip: he starts out as a larger-than-life, cardboardy figure, he exits as same.

I can't help but feel like there's a warning here about tonal shifts: in its own way, Silvertip is more successful, while being less ambitious. At the same time, a little mix of genre gives The Furies a lot more interest in its characters and plot.

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