Arts & Events
Ambition, deception, manipulation and dispossession: The Furies (1950), Anthony Mann's genre-defying noir-epic-western-melodrama, has enough treachery and love and treacherous love to fill several pictures.
Mann brought everything he had learned during his apprenticeship in the world of noir — even his cinematographer — to this, one of his first forays into the western, a genre to which he had long aspired. Also completed and released that same year was Winchester '73, one of the more famous and accomplished of Mann's westerns, and the first of many collaborations with Jimmy Stewart.
Winchester '73, along with Mann's later westerns, especially the ones featuring Stewart, has long overshadowed The Furies. And while there may be plenty of justification for that fact — Mann having matured greatly as a director over time — The Furies does not deserve to be overlooked. For while it is certainly a flawed film, it has more than its merits: fascinating dynamics, superb photography, and excellent performances by Walter Houston and Barbara Stanwyck, two formidable actors at the peak of their talents in their portrayal of a father-daughter relationship so Freudian that it borders on incest.
Houston, in his final screen appearance, delivers a delightfully hammy portrayal of a ham-fisted tycoon, a lordly lord of the manor forever seeking to re-establish his prowess and power. Houston plays it for all it's worthy, making his T.C. Jeffords into a brawling blowhard, full of bluster and braggadocio. As with his celebrated role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Houston manages to walk the line of histrionic bluster without quite slipping into caricature, rendering Jeffords by turn a tyrant and a fool, but always a man—human, humane and fallible.
Stanwyck is at her steely, brassy best as Jeffords' daughter, a wild, tempestuous siren of a tomboy and heiress to his sprawling New Mexico ranch. Stanwyck manages once again to defy her era's gender stereotypes; her Vance Jeffords is strong-willed, wily and tough as the rugged landscape she oversees. And yet her beauty, sensuality and charismatic self-confidence, even arrogance, make her as alluring as any eye-batting southwestern belle.
The bond between father and daughter is as sexual as it is familial, and as ruthless as it is tender. T.C. and Vance admire each other with a curious gleam in their eyes, looking upon each other with equal parts fascination and wariness. The proud T.C. does not want to give up an inch of his domain, while Vance is eager to prove herself every bit as much a ruthless tycoon as her father by taking over his role. Mann squares them off in face-to-face compositions, each leaning toward the other in shots that convey both aggression and love. T.C. is frequently pictured in his office, where mounted bull horns on the wall perch just above his head, signaling both his swaggering arrogance and his susceptibility to the feints and jabs of the stoic Rip Darrow, played by Wendell Corey with the haughty stillness of a matador.
Criterion has given the film the full treatment, with an excellent (if phallic symbol-obsessed) commentary by film historian Jim Kitses, and a pressing of the novel by Niven Busch on which the film was based.
1950. 109 minutes. $39.95. www.criterion.com.
Senator Obama Goes to Africa
In August of 2006, Illinois Senator Barack Obama embarked on a diplomatic trip to Africa. Along the way, he made his first visit in 14 years to Kenya, birthplace of his father. Thousands turned out to see the would-be president wherever he went, and to his credit Obama sought to make the most of it, using every appearance to draw attention to issues of the region.
The trip was documented in a film called Senator Obama Goes to Africa. First Run Features recently released the film on DVD.
A diplomatic trip is just that: a chance to hobnob and kibitz with the people, with dignitaries and politicians. It's a series of speeches and photo-ops, and for the most part that's all this film manages to capture. As we've seen in the ensuing two years, Obama and his staff know how to stage-manage his appearances, how to harness the excitement he inspires, and this documentary captures that clearly if a little too faithfully. We see crowds cheering their son of a native son, we hear Africans opining on the greatness of the man and the impact of his presence, and then we see the man himself, in press conferences and one-on-one interviews, underlining for us once again his sincerity, his graciousness, his humility. The film comes across more as a campaign commercial than a documentary.
There is only one voice that manages to break the hagiographic spell. Ellis Close, contributing editor to Newsweek, is the only talking head in the picture who expresses anything resembling a dissenting voice. Close goes beyond the press-release rhetoric and flatly states the political underpinnings of the trip, namely Obama's need to establish a foreign-policy credential. That's not exactly earth-shattering insight, but it provides some much-needed perspective on the event, helping to ground this otherwise giddy portrait in the world of politics. Close is essentially the only voice in the film that manages to puncture the Prodigal Son storyline with a bit of reality, pointing out the political benefits of the positions Obama adopts on his journey in an effort to establish credibility in the eyes of not only his African hosts, but for those back in the States as well. The film would have been greatly enhanced had it sought out more such voices, for the resulting portrait would have been a fuller, more revealing document about a candidate and a man who is far more interesting than his carefully crafted public image would suggest.
2007. 60 minutes. $19.95. www.firstrunfeatures.com.
Who Are You, Polly Magoo?
Criterion's bills its Eclipse series as a line of forgotten or overshadowed classics for "the adventurous home viewer," and perhaps no release in the series fits the bill as well as the William Klein collection.
The Delirious Fictions of William Klein contains three stinging satires by the New York photographer-turned-filmmaker: Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), and The Model Couple (1977).
Polly Magoo follows the seemingly meteoric rise of a young Brooklyn-born model, an average freckle-faced girl who rises to the top of the European fashion world. Klein had done time in that world as a fashion photographer, and here he turns his camera around to reveal a blistering portrait of a vacuous, image-obsessed culture. Polly is essentially what she has always been, a simple girl, youthful, callow and naive, but through the magic of makeup, wigs and a loving lens she is transformed into a goddess, an icon, a harbinger of a youth movement of which she is only dimly aware and that may not really exist anyway.
Klein captures the phenomenon from all angles, from the media-created cultural movement that Polly is said to represent, to the political ramifications of that cultural shift, and the simpler, more primal level of love and sex and fantasy, as Polly is essentially reduced to a static, seamless sex object, a blank slate of penetrating gazes, parted lips and kinky costumes upon which men can project their seediest desires.
1966. 101 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Part of a collection, The Delirious Fictions of William Klein. $44.95. www.criterion.com.
Before the Rain
Also new from Criterion: Before the Rain (1994), the first film made in newly independent Macedonia and centering on the violence and bloodshed in the Balkan states in the early 1990s. The film is beautifully photographed, and with a range of color palettes, from dusty, sepia-toned landscapes to the cool, glowing decor of nightclub interiors.
The disc features a making-of documentary, a music video by director Milcho Manchevski, and a commentary by Manchevski and film scholar Annette Insdorf, who has also provided excellent commentaries for films by her late friend, the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
1994. 113 minutes. In Macedonian, English and Albanian with English subtitles. $39.95. www.criterion.com.