“Mann’s 1950 threesome — The Devil’s Doorway, Winchester ’73, The Furies — was the most auspicious quantum jump by an American director since John Ford’s equivalent Americana triumvirate of 1939 (Stage Coach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) lifted him into the major phase of his career. Yet Mann’s achievements seem destined to remain unappreciated and the director himself obscure.”
Westerns are a genre based on a foregone conclusion. Through the end of World War II, the subject of the Western was — predictably — the winning of the West. This was overt in the big-budget epics of national expansion (The Iron Horse, The Covered Wagon, The Big Trail, Cimarron, The Plainsman, Union Pacific) and implicit in the “B” Western. The protagonist was usually a scout, a cowboy, a lawman, or some other agent of the civilizing/colonizing process. Resistance was offered by natural forces (most graphically in The Big Trail), by the Indians (also treated essentially as a force of nature), but most usually by the Bad Guys. The Bad Guys were mainly motivated by economic gain; they rustled cattle, jumped mining claims, monopolized water rights, or surreptitiously acquired railroad rights of way. Often they were rich (e.g. the fat banker in Stage Coach) but no indictment of capitalist values was intended. Quite the opposite. What made the Bad Guys bad was their obstruction of the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ideal of a community of individualists. In seeking unfair legal advantage for themselves or stealing what had been developed through the hard work of others, they became obstacles to the orderly growth of property-owning democracy. Whitewashed into victims of robber barony, even such potentially subversive protagonists as returning Confederate veterans or outlaws (the two often overlapped as in Jesse James or Bad Men of Missouri) could be integrated into the populist pageant of developing nationhood.
In the 1920s, the courage of the pioneers (The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse) could be counterpoised against the moral squalor of the Prohibition era and the frivolousness of flappers and lounge lizards. In 1932 William Wellman’s The Conquerors put the recurring refrain, “We might as well give the country back to the Indians,” into the mouths of nay-sayers while recounting the multi-generational saga of a Western dynasty that survives booms and busts from the Panic of 1873 to the (then) present. A host of patriotic epics just before World War II reflected a general trend toward “American” subjects.
After 1945, the emotional power once exercised by America’s westward expansion was becoming exhausted as the real frontier era faded beyond the memory of living men and the substitute movie myth was dulled by routinization in stereotyped Hollywood “oaters.” How the West Was Won (1963) unwittingly revealed the dead-endedness of the old-style Manifest Destiny epics in its final aerial shots of Southern California freeway interchanges.
In the post-war period, as America came of middle-age and films became more pessimistic, it became apparent that the central drama of the serious Western was not the winning of the West — this was no longer in doubt — but its losing. The focus shifted to those left behind by the West’s passing. The traditional inner-directed Western hero was reinterpreted as a pathetic loner as the tight-lipped William S. Hart figure and became the archaic, humorless monomaniac of Randolph Scott in the Budd Boetticher series. Sam Peckinpah’s outlaws expired in slow-motion before symbolic sunsets as the director mourned the passing of the Good Old Days in uninhibited robbing and killing with his peculiar blend of adolescence and senility. The moral ambiguity of the lawman — exercising violence to control violence — led to his being shunned by the unappreciative citizenry he swore to protect. Cattle and land entrepreneurs shriveled into blustering King Lears disappointed in their offspring. Guilt feelings developed toward the West’s ultimate loser: the Indian.
Between the mid-1940s and early 1970s, the Western was transformed from the least pretentious of Hollywood genres to the most pretentious. From an action film with symbolic values frequently implicit (John Ford), the Western became a quasi-allegory as fraught with philosophical abstractions as an Antonioni film, e.g. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, Burt Kennedy’s grotesque Welcome to Hard Times, and such consciously “genre-killer” exercises as James Frawley’s Kid Blue and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In such films, the audience’s experience — and boredom — with the traditional Western is presumed. It is expected that the audience will read guns as phallic symbols and saloons as metaphors of American commercialism. (John Harrison refers knowingly to McCabe’s church and saloon as “twin cathedrals of polarized morality.”)
The key figure in the post-war Western is Anthony Mann. Mainly active in Westerns during the 1950s (the transitional decade between the genre’s naivete and decadence), Mann exemplified the modern Western’s early “adult” phase. Like other directors of key post-war Westerns (Hawks, Boetticher, Ray, Fuller), Mann did not apprentice in the genre.
Never an innovator, Mann rode the waves of historic transitions and industry-wide shifts in post-war Hollywood. While Mann was still directing the “B” comedies and musicals spawned by the war boom (the director later disowned all of his pre-1947 work), the success of Double Indemnity, The Killers and The Big Sleep indicated a post-war upsurge of films noirs, private eye, and “caper” movies. The semi-documentary genre initiated toward the close of the war by 20th Century-Fox (House on 92nd St.) evolved in peacetime toward the urban policier (Call Northside 777, Kiss of Death, The Naked City)
Mann’s first general and critical success, T-Men (1947) evoked the Fox series even to the extent of using the same narrator (Reed Hadley).1 John C. Higgins’ screenplay, from Virginia Kellogg’s original story, achieved authenticity of underworld argot and investigative procedures in detailing the infiltration of counterfeiters by treasury agents. (Ms. Kellogg, a former policewoman and prison warden, later contributed the original story of White Heat — also about an undercover agent among crooks — and, appropriately, the story and screenplay of Caged, about a woman’s prison.
Yet, what one remembers from T-Men after the flag-waving narration, anthem-like musical themes, and the foreword thanking government agencies for their cooperation have been forgotten is the intense downbeat virtuosity of John Alton’s cinematography. Mann’s style would later be diluted by Cinemascope and color, but the early black & white, standard-ratio Mann-Alton collaborations cast a spell through an unmistakable style: deep perspective compositions with half-illuminated faces in the foreground in immense close-up; distant backgrounds, ceilinged sets, pervasive darkness and gloom created through high-contrast lighting and filters, angular composition, all creating a screen space at once expansive yet oppressively fatalistic. The low-angle shots of Raymond Burr’s massive Kane-like presence in Mann’s poorly scripted Raw Deal (1948) suggest a stylistic debt to Orson Welles. Audiences are usually too busy laughing at the fatuous derring-do and romantic intrigues of the 1949 Reign of Terror (“Where’s Madeleine?” asks distraught lover Robert Cummings of a dying Robespierre more concerned with his shattered jaw) to notice that Alton’s photography surpassed even his own standard. With William Cameron Menzies adding his own Murnauesque touch as designer, a sub-Scarlet Pimpernel plot took on a style suggesting a visualization of the mood of George Biichner’s Danton’s Death. In a particularly striking scene, Cummings and Arlene Dahl confront each other in silhouette in a dark room illuminated by a single candle on the bureau behind them. As he accuses her of deception, the hidden side of their faces is reflected as disembodied masks in a mirror above the candle. (Even in T-Men, Mann’s Germanic streak burst through the “documentary” surface as wounded T-Man Dennis O’Keefe staggered out of the darkness like a Fritz Lang avenger to empty his gun into the cornered Charles McGraw.)
Hortense Powdermaker’s Hollywood: The Dream Factory (1950) cited T-Men as a prime example of how a realistic, low-budget film without major stars, produced by an independent company (Eagle Lion), could teach a lesson to the major studios whose expensively-produced star vehicles were failing with an increasingly selective post-war public. The grimy milieu of T-Men might make Mann seem an unlikely contractee for MGM, but this most feudalistic of big studio organizations had found the post-war readjustment especially wrenching. Mainly on the strength of another late ’40s topical “sleeper,” RKO’s Crossfire, Dore Schary was brought in as production chief to modernize Metro’s dowager image and to broaden the “product mix” to include hard-hitting, low-budget “semi-documentary” films.
Mann’s initial Metro effort, Border Incident (1949), offers a seeming mismatch (typical of the era of transition) of Schary-serious subject matter and stars evoking the Mindless-Glossy-Mayer era. Yet Ricardo Montalban (usually associated in those days with Esther Williams in a matador costume) as a Mexican immigration agent and song-and-dance-man George Murphy as his U.S. counterpart adjusted successfully to Mann’s dark vision. Despite Metro’s reputation for bureaucratic interference and glossiness, Border Incident is uncompromisingly and unmistakably a Mann film and one of the best.
If Border Incident seemed a virtual re-make of T-Men, transposed to the Mexican border with immigration agents replacing treasury agents and fake work permits instead of counterfeit plates, there was ample reason. John C. Higgins patterned his screenplay on his earlier script even to the extent of repeating the scene of having one agent having to watch his partner murdered by the gangsters he has infiltrated, impotent to intervene without sacrificing himself. In Border Incident, Montalban watches helplessly as Murphy is subject to a literally harrowing experience — run down and mutilated by farm machinery.
If the stars were not of Mann’s choosing, he got his regulars into the supporting cast. Arnold Moss (the unspeakable Fouché in Reign of Terror) was teamed with Alfonso Bedoya to provide “two of the scurviest Mexican villains ever” (William K. Everson, The Bad Guys).The ubiquitous Charles McGraw played the henchman who transports Mexican wetbacks not to promised jobs but to a remote canyon where they are marched to death, in a quicksand pit.
John Alton, whom Mann persuaded M.G.M. to put under contract, photographed the sleazy bordertowns in sinister, deep-focus compositions that somewhat anticipated Welles’ Touch of Evil.
The major revelation in Border Incident was Mann’s handling of the great Southwestern landscape. A director of gritty, urban crime films emerged as a rival to John Ford in the mythic use of locale. But the craggy formations and vast, nocturnal landscapes of Border Incident are the dark side of the heroic and majestic West hymned by Ford. Mann’s West is lonely, tragic, timeless and primal — a brutal setting for brutal men.
Though Border Incident placed Mann in the setting of his greatest triumphs and hinted that the Western might allow him to raise his bleak vision to a mythic level unconstrained by the limits of realism, Mann had to defer the opportunity. His next effort, Side Street (1949), looked back to The Naked City in its documentary evocation of everyday life in New York City and ahead to West Side Story in its opening aerial shots of Manhattan and to The French Connection in its climactic car chase through city streets. It is one of Mann’s least interesting films. Excessive sympathy was created for Farley Granger as an impoverished messenger who finds mob money and, instead of turning it in to the police, uses it to help his bed-ridden wife, Cathy O’Donnell. (Granger and O’Donnell were presumably teamed on the basis of their performances in Schary’s They Live by Night at RKO — made before, but released after, Side Street.) Granger was so full of remorse that the proceedings reminded Bosley Crowther of a feature-length Crime Does Not Pay short.
In 1949, the Western was beginning to displace the crime film as the bread-and-butter staple of the action genre market. Red River (1948) elevated John Wayne to the ranks of the Top Ten Money-Making Stars where he has since remained. With the decline of the romantic comedy-dramas dominant before World War II, established stars turned their attention to Westerns. Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, who were already partly associated with Westerns, made the transition easily. Slipping romantic stars such as James Stewart and Robert Taylor had to work harder to establish a “tough” image. Both found Anthony Mann to be an able guide. The process was not confined to male stars. In Mann’s The Furies, Barbara Stanwyck was transformed from the hard-as-nails mainstay of the Hal Wallis-Lizabeth Scott-Kirk Douglas film noir stock company to the equally strong cattle baroness she has since played in movies and television.
The importance of Red River to Mann’s early Westerns and to the “A” Western cycle generally is easily proved. Of the three watershed Westerns Mann directed in 1950, Devil’s Doorway, Winchester ’73, The Furies, two were written by the co-scenarists of Red River; Borden Chase scripted Winchester ’73 and Charles Schnee The Furies.
Mann’s 1950 threesome was the most auspicious quantum jump by an American director since John Ford’s equivalent Americana triumvirate of 1939 (Stage Coach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) lifted him into the major phase of his career. Yet Mann’s achievements seem destined to remain unappreciated and the director himself obscure.
Those who disdain lightweight entertainment and sugary optimism usually prefer the cynical derisiveness of a Kubrick to a vision as uncompromisingly bleak and austere as Mann at his best. If people do not actually like Bresson or Dreyer at least they respect them; Mann has the generic disreputability of Westerns going against him as well.
And yet the Western was the perfect form for Mann. As George Robinson has observed, the protagonists of T-Men and Border Incident incur a moral debt while watching helplessly as their partners are murdered. In Mann’s Westerns, the dual roles are combined in a hero who is both martyr and avenger.
Given Mann’s own pessimism and the developing ambiguity of the post-war Western, it was perhaps inevitable that Mann’s first Western (and arguably his best film) should be a tragic epitaph for the West’s ultimate loser, the Indian.
Pro-Indian sentiment had appeared previously on the screen. Long before the alleged discovery of Monument Valley by John Ford, its buttes and mesas were mute witnesses to the epic silent version of The Vanishing American (1926). In both this and 1934’s Massacre, the setting was contemporary and the Indian was already humiliated, displaced and long since reduced to reservation chattel. Billy Jack, Flap, The Outsider (about Ira Hayes) are later examples of this type. The other major schools of pro-Indian Westerns, such as 1970’s Soldier Blue or the made-for-television Massacre at Sand Creek (1956) are set in the period of the Indian Wars and engage liberal guilt by focusing on a single spectacular atrocity.
Mann’s Devil’s Doorway is possibly unique in that it calls the ideal of Manifest Destiny itself into question by portraying the colonization of the West from the point of view of the defeated before the doom of the Indian was sealed.
The film opens with Robert Taylor in a Civil War uniform riding into a Wyoming town in which everything — including him — is coated with dust. He is returning from the Civil War having distinguished himself by winning the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Like Richard Dix in The Vanishing American, he assumes that war service will result in improved treatment for the Indian. (Devil’s Doorway closely follows a cycle of contemporary racially-conscious films — Crossfire, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Home of the Brave, in which members of the armed forces were subjected to discrimination. These films and President Truman’s 1947 desegregation of the military reflected the obvious irony in America’s fighting Nazi Master Race ideology with a Jim Crow army.)
Taylor has a drink in a bar where he is greeted as a hero by the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan). “In my army, we were particular who we let in” observes cigar-smoking lawyer Verne Cooley (Louis Calhern) whose presence in the scene Mann skillfully withholds. (Calhern in this period had become MGM’s all-purpose character actor — a combined replacement for Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Lewis Stone — portraying all the Establishment figures not played by Walter Pidgeon.) “Ever notice how you can always smell ’em?” asks Calhern, unheard by Taylor who walks out of the bar with Buchanan. “The Union Pacific’s going to make a lot of changes,” is Buchanan’s prophetic parting comment.
Returning to his family’s ranch, Taylor tells his father (Fritz Leiber) that the war has brought acceptance of the Indian (“I led a squad of white men”) and that Indians must reconcile themselves to being outnumbered by whites and must adjust to white ways. Taylor himself uses his “American” name, Lance Poole, although his father, unpersuaded of the white man’s good intentions, continues to address his son as “Broken Lance.”2)
“Our people are doomed . . . There is only one way: Be strong,” warns the old chief after he becomes grievously ill. An anxious Taylor finds the white doctor (Harry Antrim) engrossed in a card game with Calhern and decidedly unenthusiastic about treating an Indian. Persuading the doctor that he has enough money to pay the fee, Taylor returns home to find his father already dead. The dilatory doctor demands his fee anyway and Taylor bitterly pays.
As Taylor leads the horse pulling a litter with his father’s body, we notice that an Indian amulet adorns his customary immaculate Western garb — the beginning of a reversion to Indian-ness and a renunciation of his acquired identity that is one of the film’s major motifs. Observing tribal custom, Taylor “buries” his father by raising the litter so that the body slides down the mountainside.
If Taylor can no longer believe in the white man’s good will, he still practices his gospel of material attainment. After five years’ work developing a profitable cattle ranch, he becomes wealthy and his success seems secure.
The first indication of an impending change of fortune comes when Taylor brings his cattle to town for sale and they are blocked in the street by the sheep of a Scotsman (Rhys Williams) and his son (Marshall Thompson). The sky above the mingled herds is illuminated by lightning (courtesy of special effects head A. Arnold Gillespie’s matte artists) to portend the approaching storm. Being an Indian does not exempt Taylor from class prejudices. “This here’s cattle country,” he tells the sheepmen who are eager to buy land.
Edgar Buchanan, now U.S. Marshal, warns Taylor that some people are resentful that the Indian is becoming too successful. Referring to the money he has just deposited from the sale of his cattle, Taylor replies, “When a man sees a check for $1,800, he respects you.” Buchanan advises him to be careful nevertheless because “Wyoming’s a Territory now.”
Evidence of the new order appears when Taylor, accompanied by his brother (James Mitchell), enters the same bar where he was welcomed after the War. The bartender points to a newly-installed sign: No Liquor for Indians. One of the ironies of the film is that each advance toward legal authority, a process that is welcomed in most Westerns, undercuts the Taylor character and shrinks the freedom he enjoyed in the previous unstructured situation. (The Shoshone — Taylor’s tribe in the film — made an unstable peace in 1868 which allowed for the formation of a Territorial government to protect the settlements along the newly built Union Pacific railroad and parallel stage line.) There is something similar in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance where the director’s sympathy is with the John Wayne character who is also made obsolete by the advance of “civilization” (in his case, the evolution of Wyoming3 from a territory to statehood).
The sequence inside the bar aptly illustrates Mann’s talent for composing a scene in deep perspective, in this case with four distinct planes of action. Dominating the foreground are Calhern and his main henchman (James Millican) who discuss the implications of the Indian lands being thrown open for homesteading, including “Sweet Meadow” where Taylor lives. In the middle distance, the seated bar patrons await a confrontation as the Indians are refused liquor. In the rear of the shot, Taylor and Mitchell stand at the far end of the bar near the door. Through the door, we can see horses hitched outside, creating a fourth plane. The lighting is extremely dark with only source lights from the window illuminating the oppressively ceilinged set. This association of interiors with darkness and confinement, and the outdoors with light and freedom is the major visual motif of the film.
Denied liquor, Taylor and Mitchell ask for water. As Millican draws his gun, Calhern simultaneously puts a cigar to his mouth, signifying contempt for the Indians. (“The next thing you know, they’ll want to mix with us socially.”) In a shot framed to show the full length of the bar, Millican fires his gun and blasts both water glasses. Millican then shoots off the Indians’ hats, saying he doesn’t like the way Taylor parts his hair. Then, in medium shot, Taylor and Mitchell stand immobilized as Millican fires again, grazing Taylor’s skull.
“Five,” says Taylor, audibly counting the number of rounds Millican has fired. When Millican shoots again, Taylor lunges forward into the frame attacking Millican. The ensuing struggle, which rivals the bar-room fights in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Shane in brutality, uses only natural sounds — grunts and distant thunder — with no background music. The close-ups of twisted, sweaty faces are illuminated by lightning flashes that add a surreal intensity.
In an extreme low angle, with the camera at floor level, Taylor forces Millican to the floor. Calhern, who has been watching, retreats into shadow, slowly drawing his gun; Mitchell grabs and wrenches his wrist, causing the gun to drop from his hand (and the cigar from his mouth.) Revealing a potential for extreme violence, Taylor is only restrained by his brother’s intercession from strangling Millican.
Taylor’s victory in the fight is ironic; he must now struggle against the homesteading that threatens to cut the ground, literally and figuratively, out from under him. Told by Buchanan that he needs to get a lawyer, Taylor walks away disheartened thinking that Calhern is the only accessible lawyer. But, lo!, there is another lawyer in town: O. Masters. When “O. Masters” turns out to be a woman, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), Taylor immediately walks out the door. (As a male, and a male in a traditional culture, he isn’t above sexist prejudices, either.) Hesitating on the stairs, he considers his nonexistent alternatives and returns.
The relative brightness of Raymond’s office presents an immediate visual contrast to the gloom of the bar. As a sign of potential hope, it is the first (and, ultimately, only) interior in the film that is not unrelievedly dark. The brightness of the office emphasizes Taylor’s dark Indian make-up. Taylor is seated uncomfortably in the center of the frame as if in a witness chair, his eyes standing out from his darkly-colored face.
She tells him that he will have to file a claim to homestead his own land but that his war record should help. Questioned on that record, he ticks off his campaigns (practically every major battle of the Civil War) and decorations (“Congressional Medal of Honor . . .”). Told it will cost ten dollars to file a claim, he asks, “How much for you?” She answers, uncertainly, “Ten dollars?” and he gives her two gold pieces.
After his departure, we learn the reason for her uncertainty. “What do you think of my first case?” she asks her mother (Spring Byington) who has been eavesdropping on her conversations with what Byington calls “that savage.”
In addition to its obvious (“love interest”) function, making the lawyer a woman recalls that Wyoming made itself attractive to feminists by becoming the first place in the U.S. to enact women’s suffrage (1869). The treatment of homesteading is also chronologically authentic. The five years elapsed since the Civil War place the setting of Devil’s Doorway in 1870 when the first land office opened in Wyoming. Homesteading began in the best valleys along the Union Pacific, although most of the land north of the railroad remained in Indian hands until about 1876.
“That Indian is apt to blow up like a powder keg when he finds out the Government has rejected his claim,” explains Byington, who brings along an ancient flintlock when she and her daughter leave for Taylor’s ranch to bring the bad news. On arrival, they find Taylor’s men busily pounding boundary stakes. When Taylor extends his arm to help Raymond alight from the wagon, she recoils from his touch.
Having been disillusioned, first, in his assumption of the white man’s good intentions, next, in his belief in achieved status in the marketplace, Taylor now finds that his next option, the presumed fairness of the law, does not exist for him. He cannot homestead land because he is not a citizen but “a ward of the government.”
This is the pivotal point of the film. As Byington and Raymond prepare to leave, they are startled by the sight of a young Indian boy running out of breath toward Taylor’s house. In a ground-level shot, the boy falls and crawls painfully into close-up with the sun setting over the mountains in the far distance. It is explained that this is a ritual of manhood in which the boy was turned loose in the wild and told to return with the talons of an eagle before sundown of the third day. When Raymond winces at this (“Isn’t that rather cruel?”) Taylor explains that “the Shoshone are a small tribe” and that each man must fight as ten. With the exhaustion of the law, the only remaining option is force.
Conducting Raymond and Byington to the limits of his property, Taylor encounters a group of nineteen Indians who have escaped from the reservation to seek refuge on his ranch; he translates their words for the two white women: “We will die but we will never go back to the reservation.” But he is reluctant to let them stay.
Taylor brings the two women home. This time Raymond accepts his hands but he warns, “It wouldn’t be good for you to be seen with me,” and he tells Byington she needn’t have brought that rusty flintlock. Raymond announces that she plans to file a petition in his behalf, declaring, “I have faith in people,” but reflecting a level of consciousness he has already left behind.
At the instigation of Calhern, the sheepmen begin homesteading on Taylor’s property. “You go through the ‘Devil’s Doorway’ . . .” relates Calhern, describing a rocky defile that leads to a lush valley (and explaining, for the first time, the film’s ambiguous and mnemonically unfortunate title). The valley he rhapsodizes is Taylor’s home, Sweet Meadow, adding revealingly, “I’d like to live there myself.” Taylor disdainfully rides his horse through the Scotsmen’s sheep.
If Taylor has no legal rights, he still has power which the marshal, Edgar Buchanan, tries to broker. Sheepman Marshall Thompson also attempts to work out a deal through Raymond for water rights on Taylor’s land to keep the sheep from dying.
“Not one foot,” Taylor answers, “the Shoshone have experience with compromise.” He chides her for her own unconscious racism: “Part of you still thinks I’m wrong.” To her warning that he will be killed, he answers, “We might as well be dead,” aware that the Indian has become an anachronism, aware that his culture is reduced to a relic, and unable to see a future on the reservation as anything but a living death. He notes that a tribe who “fought the white men and against their own race aren’t likely to stay on a reservation. This scene, enacted in front of Taylor’s cabin, is transformed by Alton’s heavily-filtered cinematography into an outdoor shadow play, flawed only by some soft-focus close-ups of Ms. Raymond that are sufficiently out of keeping to suggest the intrusion of MGM’s notoriously glamor-conscious front-office. (Incredibly, the Motion Picture Herald reviewer described the film’s photography as “documentary style.”)
Taylor, nevertheless, is persuaded to compromise: if her petition is granted allowing Taylor homestead rights, he will offer water and grazing to the sheepmen. To sabotage the compromise, Calhern tells the sheepman, Marshall Thompson, that he heard from Government authorities while in Cheyenne, that there is no chance the petition will be accepted. He urges Thompson to begin occupying the Indian land immediately. (Asked later by his henchman Millican when he had time to go to Cheyenne, Calhern replies, “Oh, I was there once, eight or nine years ago.”)
Hearing that the sheepmen have entered his land, Taylor, for the first time in the film, straps on a gun. He is also wearing, for the first time, an Indian headband and silver belt, indicating a reversion to racial identity that makes reconciliation impossible. Underlining Taylor’s isolation and fear of captivity is the mise-en-scene of his cabin: a gloomy, ceilinged interior — rendered in Alton’s best black-on-black manner — with a single window providing light.
Good will failed Taylor because it depended upon respect; respect eluded him because it was based on property; property was insecure because it depended on law; law failed him because it reflected the hegemony of force. Belatedly, Taylor apprehends that white expansion, certain of its superior firepower, never intended to treat the Indian on any grounds other than maneuvering him into a suicidal resistance. The chain of events in Devil’s Doorway so aptly illustrates Mao’s dictum “political power flows from the barrel of a gun” that it is no wonder that the picture was named “Film of the Year” by the Daily Worker in 1951.
In town, Raymond solicits signatures for a petition. Buchanan is the first to sign and even Calhern signs after extracting from Raymond an assurance that Taylor intends to live in peace. Violence, of course, has already been set in motion and when Millican comes in to report that Taylor has fired on the approaching homesteaders — wounding Marshall Thompson — the petition dies as prospective signers put away their pens and reach for their guns.
Walking past sheepmen loading their rifles, Raymond embarks on another mission to Taylor. “The Land Office refused the petition,” she reports although that hardly still surprises or interests him. Visually, each exchange between Taylor and Raymond has moved toward a darker setting and a location which accentuates his isolation. From the early optimism of the brightly-lighted scene in her office, to the somberly-filtered scene on the ranch when she attempted to negotiate a compromise, we have moved to the grim refuge of his cabin illuminated only by shafts of moonlight through the sole window now that all options are exhausted. (William K. Everson has referred half-facetiously to Mann’s early films as le Western noir but it indicates Mann’s stylistic roots. Higham and Greenberg in Hollywood in the Forties traced links of Hollywood film noir to Germanic Expressionism. Mann’s use of a progressively darkening mise-en-scene to parallel the hero’s cultural extinction is drawn directly from Murnau’s Tabu.)
“Do you believe they have a right to my land?” asks Taylor. “They have a right to live,” she argues, echoing the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, The Four Freedoms, and the U.N. Charter. The actress has a doubly thankless role: (1) dispenser of liberal platitudes in an action genre — what Pauline Kael has aptly called the Polonius figure in American movies; (2) female lead for a director whose women are his least convincing creations. Mann’s world is a man’s world and his obligatory scene is invariably a struggle mano a mano. “I always wanted to die with my boots on,” reveals Edgar Buchanan as he mounts up to lead the sheepmen through the Devil’s Doorway. His badge glints in the sun in the film’s last scene in bright daylight. The Indians ride to do battle and a final meeting between Taylor and Buchanan is abruptly ended as Taylor says, “Bring on the sheep.”
The Indians descend from the mountains with Taylor leading them in a Cavalry-style assault on the pioneers. The Indians fling sticks of dynamite into their wagons and at their flocks of sheep. Daniele Amphitheatrof’s score ceases as the sound track is filled with explosions, gunfire, and, most memorably, the bleating of hundreds of sheep. In a bizarre, apocalyptic sequence, Mann projects a unique vision of hell: settler against Indian amid stampeding sheep on a craggy landscape riven by convulsive explosions, an abbatoir for man and animal.
The result of the battle is to wipe out the moderate leadership. Marshall Thompson is killed. Edgar Buchanan falls dead. In a masterly shot, Mann pans the length of Buchanan’s body to his boots, then dissolves to the face of Calhern who proclaims himself acting marshal. Calhern raises a posse to retaliate against the Indians. Raymond sends a telegram to an Army post calling for Cavalry to restore order. In another shot illustrating Mann’s facility for composition in depth, she is posed before a window through which we see the posse riding off to wipe out the Indians while, in the foreground, the telegrapher’s hand taps on the key.
The camera tracks with Taylor as he positions the Indians behind fortifications on his ranch. He is wearing an Indian shirt and wears his hair long and parted in the middle in a total disavowal of white identity although he can still use his knowledge of white society to military advantage. “Indians aren’t supposed to be able to fight at night,” says Taylor, preparing to turn darkness to advantage. The old people and women are moved inside the house and even the escaped reservation Indians are armed for the fight.
The white posse surrounds the ranch. Raymond arrives with news that the Cavalry is coming, but this does not restrain Calhern who is anxious to “soften up” the Indians. Calhern’s men, also armed with dynamite, charge the ranch house. Explosions shatter the walls. In one gaping hole, the fallen timbers form, symbolically, a literal double-cross. The Indians’ resistance is unexpectedly strong. Casualties in the charge are heavy and Taylor shoots Millican off of his horse. Other Indians steal through the darkness, silently dispatching the whites from within their own ranks with knives, fulfilling the colonialist nightmare of being stabbed in the night by a person of color. Calhern reaches over to one of his henchmen and finds himself touching dead men. Calhern turns to see Taylor who knifes him.
At daybreak, the Cavalry arrive. As often happens in Devil’s Doorway, Mann reverses our expectations and loyalties. Instead of the usual last-reel rescue to the cheers of moppets, the coming of the Cavalry here seals the hero’s doom. In an insightful touch, Mann cross-cuts between Taylor and the cavalry lieutenant commanding their forces who are identically arrayed opposite each other. Taylor’s use of his Army tactical experience against the Army emphasizes a pertinent political truth: the leadership in colonial revolutions is invariably drawn from the most Westernized segment of the population. (The Mau Mau came out of the most sophisticated natives in Kenya; the French in Indochina found themselves confronted by demonstraters who quoted Victor Hugo on their placards.)
In preparation for the final charge, Taylor gives the rifle of a dead brave to Jimmy, the boy seen earlier undergoing the manhood ritual. Raymond makes a final effort to achieve a peaceful surrender; with the guns temporarily silent, she runs from the cavalry line toward the Indians: “Just what an Indian needs: advice from a lawyer telling him to give up,” is Taylor’s reaction to her efforts. To her pledge tc get him a fair trial, he wonders, “What do you think a white man’s court would do to Indians who fought back?”
For the first time, she tells him that she loves him. In the close two-shot, the lighting and make-up emphasize the difference in skin color. Once again Mann goes nine-tenths of the way toward cliche as they seem about to kiss but do not. In their shrill book, The Only Good Indian, Ralph and Natasha Friar interpret this as evasiveness and timidity:
By far, the strongest heresy in Indian films was the marriage between an Indian man and a white woman. The Indian brave or chief’s love is usually unspoken … To avoid the threat of an involvement between a white woman and red man, the Indian is usually killed. In Devil’s Doorway . . . there is a love interest between the two that is barely touched upon. It is finally dismissed by Taylor with, “A hundred years from now, it might have worked.”
Aside from unwittingly confirming the validity of that last line, the Friars, in their projection of 1970 New York values onto the Wyoming of 1870, miss the point of the scene. Both Taylor and Raymond are aware of, and accept, the social prohibitions and psychological barriers that make their relationship impossible.
Devil’s Doorway, of course, was not made in 1870 but in 1950 when such anti-climaxes as, for example, Barbara Stanwyck’s hysterical pleading to Gary Cooper to abandon a similarly suicidal gesture in Meet John Doe were part of the moviegoer’s conditioned expectations. One keeps wondering in Devil’s Doorway at what point the Hollywood cop-out will take place. It never does. Having already exhausted good will and the fairness of the law, Mann rejects the ultimate canon of Hollywood theology: Love Conquers All. Love plainly cannot conquer in a struggle for hegegomy which one side can win only by destroying the other. (And judging from the pressbook Howard Dietz’s drumbeaters put together, MGM would have been only too grateful for some interracial sexual spice to convince the patrons they were getting another Pagan Love Song: “SEE a white girl run the gauntlet of Cavalry fire to her Indian lover’s side!”)
Raymond leaves Taylor alone in his ruined house. He is illuminated only by backlighting from moonlight, outlined by a crescent of light so that he himself resembles the moon in a waning phase. He walks about examining the artifacts in the room and picks up his father’s peace pipe. There is silence until enough time elapses for Raymond to return to the Cavalry lines. As intense gunfire resumes, Taylor winces and turns to look at his Cavalry sergeant’s uniform still hanging in the room. As the shooting subsides, one senses that all the Indian men are dead. In a final defiant affirmation of manhood, Taylor comes out of the cabin in a dramatic low-angle shot, walking into Cavalry fire with two six-guns blazing from the hip. Wounded, he offers a cease-fire if the Army will let the women and children go back to the reservation. Amid the carnage, Taylor finds the young boy, Jimmy, and tells him it will be his job, as he is the only man left, to take the women back to the reservation. “I’d rather stay and fight,” says the boy, stroking a rifle and glaring vengefully toward the Cavalry (in yet another moment that makes the film the Western counterpart of The Battle of Algiers). This dissolves into a long shot of Jimmy leading the bedraggled women back to captivity.
In the film’s concluding shot, in extreme low-angle, Raymond and the Cavalry officer are positioned in the foreground on opposite sides of the frame. Forming a triangle, the dying Taylor walks forward from the rear of the shot wearing his Army uniform jacket with the Congressional Medal of Honor over his patterned Indian shirt — a final gesture symbolizing his divided loyalty between his Indian heritage and his overlay of white culture, his inability to find a complete identity in either, and his ultimate alienation from both. Taylor salutes the officer — whom we half-expect to reprimand him for being out of uniform — and reports, “We’re all gone.” Like a felled tree, he drops face forward toward the audience and out of frame to expose the mountains behind. “We must never forget,” intones Raymond as the camera tilts up to the sky as if to imply that the released spirits of slain Indians will forever hover above these hills. Realist-obsessed critics might question whether a dying Indian would stop to change clothes but what is most satisfying in Devil’s Doorway (and also in Winchester ’73) is the interlocking of narrative and symbolic levels. The script, by Guy Trosper,4 combines a well-made narrative in the Ibsen-Lillian Hellman brick-by-brick tradition with an almost Brechtian demonstrationalism. In a Cahiers interview, Mann recalled how producer Nicholas Nayfack first offered him Devil’s Doorway, asking, “Would you like to do a Western? I have a script here that seems interesting.” “Interesting?!” Mann asserted, “It was the best screenplay I ever read.”
The didactic vision of Devil’s Doorway was adjusted to traditional Hollywood audience identification. The fat, mustachioed cigar-smoking lawyer played by Louis Calhern is too much a stock villain. (The otherwise excellent silent The Vanishing American was similarly vitiated by the casting of a well-known heavy, Noah Beery, Sr. as the Indians’ nemesis.) Ultimately the bigotry of Louis Calhern is as irrelevant as the noble sentiments of Paula Raymond.5 The real villain of Devil’s Doorway is history as it was in The Vanishing American with its Social Darwinist dogma of peaceful cave-dwelling tribes defeated by the warrior Navaho who were in turn conquered by the rifles and horses of the Spaniards and then displaced by the cannon of the U.S. Cavalry.
Historical perspective is not what stands ’em in line at Loew’s State, however, and the overwhelming bleakness of the film made it a commercial liability. Besides the fabricated miscegenation ploy, MGM’s campaign resorted to standard racist-sensational advertising that betrayed the film’s serious theme: “SEE the Wild Shoshone tribesmen vs. the U.S. Cavalry!” “SEE covered wagons put to the torch!” (Hardly a novelty in Westerns.) “SEE Taylor as he fights for the land of his wild heritage!” (See the repeated use of the word “wild” to describe Indians who only fight when left no options but extermination or surrender.)
Devil’s Doorway was cooly received in quarters more influential than the Daily Worker. “Grossing possibilities do not appear good,” judged Variety. Most critics dismissed the film as a cheap imitation of Broken Arrow. (Actually, Devil’s Doorway carries an earlier copyright — 1949 — and was released about the same time.) There was widespread dissatisfaction with Robert Taylor, more on general principles than with his actual performance (probably his best). Variety found Taylor “too polished and educated.” An exhibitor in the Motion Picture Herald’s endlessly fascinating “What the Picture Did for Me” section complained, “Robert Taylor has no more business playing an Indian than an Indian has playing Robert Taylor.” (Another theatre owner boasted that he lightened the mood by double-billing Devil’s Doorway with Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion.)
Actually, without Taylor (or at least a star) the film would probably not have been made. There was nothing commercially attractive about it beyond Taylor’s name (and by 1950 that meant little except in lavish packages like Ivanhoe and Quo Vadis?).
A white actor would be much less acceptable in such a role today, but Devil’s Doorway anticipated the heightened political and racial consciousness that would bring this about. Traditionally military service has been the means by which America’s ethnic minorities have made a moral claim on the system. MGM’s Go For Broke, for instance, depicted the disproportionately heavy casualties sustained by the Nisei volunteer regiment in World War II. John Ford was fond of pointing out that Irish-Americans could claim more Medal of Honor winners than any other group. Taylor’s return as Medal of Honor winner in Devil’s Doorway parallels the silent The Vanishing American in which Indians enlist in the First World War to build support for their cause. (And 1934’s Massacre reminds us that Indians were only made citizens in 1925 in return for their war services.) The implication of Sal Mineo’s “homecoming” in Giant is that America has been served best by those it respects least.
Today, minorities take their rights instead of waiting for them to be conferred. In the Vietnam Era, black, Chicano, and Indian militants refused induction into the armed forces to express solidarity with the “Third World.” In the disenchantment with the purity of America’s global motives and the universal applicability of American values (ironically dependent on an illusion of military and para-military invincibility) revisionism has inevitably reshaped American History. Manifest Destiny now appears less a national ideal than a racial one — achieved at the price of black slavery and the destruction of the Indian. Johnny Mann may yet exhort us to stand up and cheer but Anthony Mann has shown us why we should do so with a slight quaver.
Mann’s second Western, Winchester ’73, although not nearly so distinctive a film as Devil’s Doorway, had a far greater impact on the genre. Fortunately for Mann’s career, it was Universal’s most successful film of 1950, decisively reversing a losing streak of “critic’s pictures” (A Double Life, Letter from an Unknown Woman, All My Sons, The Lost Moment, Another Part of the Forest, etc.) and launching the company on its profitable ’50’s mix of Westerns, Ross Hunter potboilers, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Mule. First of the three to be released, Winchester’s success overshadowed the box-office failure of Devil’s Doorway and The Furies and inaugurated an association between Mann and James Stewart that lasted for eight hit films.6
If Mann is the key figure in the post-war Western, Winchester ’73 is the key film, simultaneously summarizing — and disposing of — the traditional Western while establishing the modern variant. Co-scripted by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards from Stuart N. Lake’s original story, the narriative is a kind of Western La Ronde: Stewart and friend Millard Mitchell ride into Dodge City on July 4, 1876. A marksmanship contest — presided over by Wyatt Earp — for possession of a Winchester “one of a thousand” repeating rifle develops into a sublimated murderous rivalry between Stewart and Stephen McNally (for whom Stewart has been hunting.) Stewart wins the rifle, but before he can have it engraved, is beaten up by McNally and two cronies who make off with the weapon.
Heading for the Southwest, with Stewart in vengeful pursuit, McNally loses the rifle in a poker game to Indian trader John Mclntyre. An Indian chief (young Rock Hudson, no less) kills Mclntyre for the rifle. Hudson’s Indians attack settlers Charles Drake and Shelley Winters who are rescued by a Cavalry detachment led by Sergeant Jay C. Flippen (whose troopers include another Universal soon-to-be regular, Tony Curtis). Stewart and Mitchell turn up to help fight off the Indians; Hudson is slain but Stewart rides off before Flippen discovers the Winchester under the chief’s body and presents it instead to Drake. Drake takes his prospective bride to a house where he offers refuge to fugitive bandit Dan Duryea. Duryea, attracted to Winters, humiliates Drake into a suicidal gunfight by forcing him to wear an apron and tripping him as he carries a tray from the kitchen. (Can Stewart’s similar ordeal at the hands — or feet — of Lee Marvin in Liberty Valance be entirely coincidental?) As Sheriff’s deputies surround the house and set fire to it, Duryea flees with Winters and the Winchester. Duryea eventually joins McNally and his men to plan a bank robbery in New Mexico. When McNally spies the Winchester, Duryea yields it to him with minimal resistance. Stewart rides into town just in time for the bank robbery during which Winters is wounded in the inevitable shoulder. Only now, as Stewart rides off after McNally, is it revealed (by Mitchell to Winters and to the audience) that McNally is Stewart’s brother and the killer of their father. The showdown comes with the two men clambering over craggy rocks. Killing McNally, Stewart reclaims the Winchester and returns to town.
The ending leaves an ambiguously sour aftertaste. One senses that in dispatching McNally, Stewart has both corrupted himself and damaged his raison d’etre. Unlike the outcome of The Naked Spur (which turns soft at its conclusion by having Janet Leigh offer to fill Stewart’s emotional void), there is no assurance of a successful romantic union with the Winters character who is, typically, the film’s most perfunctory element.7
In Winchester ’73, Mann recapitulates, unites, and ultimately destroys the subjects of the traditional nation-building Western (Cavalry vs. Indians, homesteading, outlaw gangs, bank hold-ups, etc). The date of the shooting match which opens the film — July 4, 1876 — establishes the picture’s mythic overtones: a century from the founding of the nation barely a decade after the Civil War. This is the classic period locus of Westerns; of the thousands of Westerns made by Hollywood, probably no more than a few dozen could be found with settings before the Civil War although “the West” exercised its hold on the American imagination in Revolutionary times. Few epics of the Revolutionary War have even been essayed, let alone achieved the awesome success of The Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind.
Why? The nation’s Centennial was celebrated with an overcompensatory patriotic fervor to suppress memories of the Civil War. The “stolen” Presidential election of 1876 put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in a deal with Southern Democrats to remove the last remaining occupation troops from the South. As D.W. Griffith realized, the true “birth of a nation” took place not in 1776 but a century later when North and South reclaimed what Griffith’s titles called their “Aryan birthright.” The North abandoned “protection” of the Negro to the South, and North and South then jointly colonized the West at the expenses of the other non-Aryans on the North American continent. The Indian Wars reached a climax in 1876 with Chief Joseph’s battle and, of course, the Custer Massacre, the latter mentioned in Winchester ’73 as a topical occurrence. After Stewart helps Cavalry Sergeant Jay C. Flippen fight off the Indians, Flippen says, “I sure wish I had you at Bull Run,” to which Stewart replies that he was there but on the Confederate side. Mann’s The Tall Target (1951), a historical drama about the assassination attempt on the life of President-elect Lincoln aboard the train taking him to Washington, has a magnificent closing image: as the train pulls into the station, we see through a window the unfinished Capitol dome; the completion of the nation itself must await the resolution of the “irrepressible conflict.”
Lawrence Alloway has classed Winchester ’73 along with Colt .45 (1951) in a sub-genre of “weapon-Westerns,” but the specific origin or employment of the rifle is ignored in favor of its function as an abstract symbol of the central role of firepower in American history. Significantly, the Centennial is celebrated with a shooting exhibition and the film’s foreword, extolling the vital importance of the Winchester repeating rifle (“. . . an Indian would sell his soul to get one”) reminds us again whom the West was won from.
If the role of brute violence in taming the West is the general subject of the film, the specific one is the Stewart character’s revenge drive. Although Stewart appears in relatively few scenes (unlike his total domination of Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, the later scenes of which expose the fanatical streak developed in the Mann films) his mania colors every frame, providing a unifying motif parallel to the Winchester ’73.
Stewart is himself a walking Winchester with a hair trigger. Virtually his first action in the film is to reach for his gun when asked to disarm by Marshal Wyatt Earp, played by the about-to-be-blacklisted Will Geer as a kind of Grandpa Walton who has to fumble in his pocket to find the badge he neglects to wear. As Jim Kitses has noted, Earp’s Dodge City is populated with small children, indicating the presence of a second generation. Further evidence of Earp’s success is that no one wears a gun in town; the array of six-guns on his office wall equates civilization with disarmament.
Stewart is an unbalancing presence. Groomed, like Robert Taylor, in the glossy Metro style of the 1930’s (soon after Taylor was pressed into singing in Broadway Melody of 1936, Stewart was warbling to Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance) Stewart also followed Taylor in re-emerging as a steely Mann revenger in line with the darkening tone of American movies.
The development of the revenge protagonist is the key to the moral inversion of the 1950s Western. Since we have never seen the outrage committed by McNally, but do see Stewart’s single-minded revenge drive, he becomes an oddly ambiguous hero. Revenge plots were nothing new but in The Iron Horse or The Big Trail the hero’s search for the murderer of his father and best friend, respectively, remained incidental to the pageant of advancing nationhood. In Winchester ’73, revenge advances from a plot mechanism to the film’s main subject. (It was originally to be directed by Fritz “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” Lang.;
Winchester ’73 inverts the mythology of the Western (the extension of civilization) by descending from order to primal struggle. From a clapboard Dodge City, we regress through the verdant landscapes of Colorado to the parched New Mexico desert studded with grotesque cacti and finally to the climactic fratricide on a desolate craggy rockpile like that “at the world’s limit” to which Prometheus was expelled.
The rule of law gives way to the lust for blood revenge. It is typical of post-war Westerns that focus shifted from society and community to family. In My Darling Clementine, the half-built church signifies the tentative movement toward community but the climax becomes a war of family against family. In Duel in the Sun, the coming of the railroad is subordinated to the struggle between blustering Lionel Barrymore’s family. Red River may have been conceived as a Mutiny on the Bounty of the cattle trails, but the personal story was out of Moses and Monotheism. (From High Noon on, the Western resumed its concern with society and community but in an ironic way with apathy seen as reducing the possibility of democratic collective action to a nihilistic joke.) This shift from the national to familial may reflect American society’s withdrawal from the challenges of Depression and the Second World War to refuge in suburban enclaves troubled mainly by “teen-age tyranny.”
It should be recalled that Mann’s last project was a Western version of King Lear, starring John Wayne. One wonders what a Mann version of Red River would have been like. The forced reconciliation of Wayne and Montgomery Clift by Joanne Dru can be defended by Hawks enthusiasts as being too consistent with Hawks’ view of his characters to be called a deus ex machina, but there is something inescapably frivolous and anticlimactic about it relative to the murderous tensions generated.
A Mann Red River might well have ended with Wayne or Clift (or both) dead. The tensions in Winchester ’73 are not a pretext but an obsession which must be pursued to its tragic conclusion. Near the film’s end, a drained Stewart falls limp against a rock after killing his brother, i.e. killing part of himself. As Ernest Jones has written of Hamlet’s murder of Claudius:
His own moral fate is bound up with his uncle’s for good or ill. In reality, his uncle incorporated the deepest and most buried part of his own personality so that he cannot kill him without also killing himself.
Stewart’s dilemma is like that which classicist Edith Hamilton poses for Orestes:
Could it be justice that a son take a mother’s life to avenge a father’s death? It was a son’s duty to avenge his father’s death — a duty that came before all others. But a son who killed his mother was abhorrent to gods and men. A most sacred obligation was bound up with a most atrocious crime.
Stewart, like Orestes, must choose between two hideous wrongs: being a traitor or a murderer.
Mann’s third 1950 Western, The Furies, is a further variation on The House of Atreus Goes West.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a rancher’s daughter with an Electra complex. In his last role, Walter Huston (who died before the film’s release) is her cattle baron father. The grey-black photography by Victor Milner added strokes of Eugene O’Neill’s funereal ambience to the Old Testament/Aeschylean/Shakespearean ethos in Mann’s work. The guiding hand of John Alton still seemed to be casting a somber spell even in absentia in this gloomiest of all Mann Films. (Milner couldn’t have been further removed from the sparkling world of Ernst Lubitsch any more than Garbo could have offered William Daniels much experience for Winchester ’73.) As the original star of Desire Under the Elms, Huston reinforced the O’Neill-like mood.
Unfortunately, The Furies is a film more memorable for its associations than for itself. Stanwyck seems to be in rehearsal for Forty Guns. (Did any actress ever adapt more readily to tight-fitting riding clothes?) As the grande dame who threatens Stanwyck in her father’s affections, Judith Anderson recalls Pursued, perhaps the first of the psychological “Western noirs,” based like The Furies on a story by Niven Busch. The screenplay, by the other co-scenarist of Red River, Charles Schnee, had inevitable echoes of that film in Stanwyck’s rebellion against her father for control of his cattle empire. A dynamite attack against Mexican squatters recalls Mann’s own Devil’s Doorway.
The unified tragic vision of both Devil’s Doorway and Winchester ’73 is missing from a diffuse screenplay that lacks a central metaphor. The Furies remains a film of parts; most memorably, Stanwyck disfigures her father’s new wife and her rival by plunging a pair of scissors into her face. (The casting of Anderson is a brilliant stroke as she resembles an older version of Stanwyck herself.)
In retaliation, Huston orders the dawn hanging of Stanwyck’s Mexican lover, Gilbert Roland; this is a cinematographic tour-de-force, shot almost entirely in silhouette with the forms of horses, fence rails, and cacti employed as semi-abstractions. Huston himself is killed by Roland’s mother, matriarch of a family of squatters.
“The Furies” is the name of Huston’s ranch but the film’s title could also refer to the squatters who occupy the ramparts of Huston’s ranch, nibbling at his land and cattle as a constant reminder of the limits of his power.
It is appropriate that The Furies is the darkest of Mann’s films. The furies of Greek tragedy inhabit the world of darkness. They are the goddesses of vengeance who come from the underworld to pursue the wicked. They punish all offenses against the laws of human society and, above all, the murder of relatives. Though just, they are merciless and take no account of mitigating circumstances.
Like the implied release of Robert Taylor’s spirit from his corpse in the final shot of Devil’s Doorway, the furies also sprang from the blood of the murdered as it soaked the earth. In Winchester ’73 and The Furies the bloody earth cries for vengeance. In opening the Devil’s doorway, this Mann of the West unleashed the Furies that would hound him to the last frontier.
Note: This article appeared originally in issue #4 (Summer 1976) of the print edition of Bright Lights.
BORDER INCIDENT (MGM, 1949). Dir: Anthony Mann; Prod: Nicholas Nayfack; Screenplay: John C. Higgins; Or. Story: John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman; Photo: John Alton; Art dir: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters; Set dec: Edwin B. Willis, Ralph S. Hurst; Mus. dir: Andre Previn; Ed: Conrad A. Nerving; Sound: Douglas Shearer; Assis. dir: Howard Koch; Still man: Newton J. Hopcraft.
Cast: Ricardo Montablan, George Murphy, Howard da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Alfonso Bedoya, Teresa Celli, Charles McGraw, Jose Torvay, John Ridgely, Arthur Hunnicutt, Sig Ruman, Otto Waldis.
DEVIL’S DOORWAY (MGM, 1950). Director: Anthony Mann; Prod.: Nicholas Nayfack; Or. Screenplay: Guy Trosper; Photo: John Alton; Spec. Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie; Art dec.: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian; Set dec: Edwin B. Willis, Alfred E. Spencer; Mus. dir-score: Daniele Amfitheatrof; Ed: Conrad A. Nervig; Sound: Douglas Shearer, Robert Lee; Assis. Dir: Reggie Gallon; Costumes: Walter Plunkett; Still man: S.C. Manatt
Cast: Robert Taylor, Louis Calhern, Paula Raymond, Marshall Thompson, James Mitchell, Edgar Buchanan, Rhys Williams, Spring Byington, James Millican, Bruce Cowling, Fritz Leiber, Harry Antrim, Chief John Big Tree.
WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal, 1950). Director: Anthony Mann; Prod: Aaron Rosenberg; Screenplay: Robert L. Richards, Borden Chase; Or. story: Stuart Lake; Photo: William Daniels; Art dir: Bernard Herzbrun, Nathan Juran; Set dec: Russell A. Gausman, A. Roland Fields; Mus. dir: Joseph Gershenson; Ed: Edward Curtiss; Sound: Leslie I. Carey, Richard De Weese; Assis. dir: Jesse Hibbs; Costumes: Yvonne Wood; Still man: Sherman Clark.
Cast: James Stewart, Stephen McNally, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, John Mclntire, Will Geer, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, John Alexander, Steve Brodie, James Millican, Abner Biberman, Anthony (Tony) Curtis, James Best.
THE FURIES (Hal Wallis-Paramount, 1950)
Director: Anthony Mann; Prod: Jack Saper; Screenplay: Charles Schnee; Or. novel: Niven Busch; Photo: Victor Milner; Process: Farciot Edouart; Spec, effects: Gordon Jennings; Art dir: Hans Dreier, Henry Bumstead; Set dec.: Sam Comer, Bertram Granger; Mus. score: Franz Waxman; Ed: Archie Marshek; Assis. dir: Chico Day; Costumes: Edith Head; Still man: Malcolm Bullock.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Thomas Gomez, Beulah Bondi, Albert Dekker, John Brownfield, Wallace Ford, Blanche Yurka, Louis Jean Heydt, Frank Ferguson, Charles Evans, Movita Castaneda, Craig Kelly, Myrna Dell.
- Mann’s 1947 Railroaded was based on the same case that inspired Call Northside 777. [↩]
- “Broken Lance” was the film’s working title which was dropped because of the proximity of its release to 20th Century-Fox’s Broken Arrow. (In 1954, Fox used the title Broken Arrow on an unrelated Western. [↩]
- Although the nominal locale is Wyoming, exteriors were actually filmed in Aspen, Colorado. [↩]
- Trosper’s other credits are curiously mediocre, ranging from the soggy The Stratton Story (1949) to the amusing The Girl He Left Behind (1956). [↩]
- Cast as a feminist friend of Indians in the film, Paula Raymond (subsequently graduated from USC’s Film School) was reported by TV Guide, December 27, 1958, to be at work on a documentary film which she wrote, produced, directed, and edited for the American Friends Service Committee on the plight of Southwestern Indians. [↩]
- The others: Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, Thunder Bay, The Glenn Miller Story, The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, The Man from Laramie. Mann was also slated to direct Night Passage (1957) but withdrew just before production, judging the script (again by Borden Chase) mediocre. James Neilson replaced him. [↩]
- Not until God’s Little Acre years later did Mann develop female characterizations with any dimension or portray sexual relationships with any real intensity. [↩]