THE FURIES

Anthony Mann started out directing low-budget noirs but had his big breakthrough as a director with Westerns.  He made three which were released in 1950 — the classic Winchester '73, the little-seen but highly regarded Devil's Doorway, not yet available on DVD, and The Furies.

The Furies, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston, is very different from all of Mann's other Westerns.  It's really a lurid, almost Gothic family melodrama that happens to be set in the Old West.  It centers around a psychically, if not physically, incestuous relationship between a powerful rancher played by Huston and his fiercely independent daughter played by Stanwyck.  They're attracted to each other because neither can dominate the other — their sparring is at the center of their lives.  It's an explicitly erotic attraction which has no other outlet than contention, so the contention inevitably escalates until the two are mortal enemies.

Mann went on to make many edgy Westerns with protagonists who were borderline neurotic, but never another one with a female character at its center, and never one with quite the level of perversity found in The Furies.

The film has a lot of interiors, since its chief conflicts are domestic, and many of its exterior scenes take place at night, as befitting the film's dark mood.  This makes it a bit unsatisfying as a Western, especially if you find the image of Stanwyck on horseback vexing.  (I don't mind confessing that the way she sits and handles a horse make me quite weak in the knees.)  The dark day-for-night scenes are evocative and often beautiful but don't show off the horse action to best effect.

The film is not entirely satisfying as a domestic melodrama, either.  Huston and Stanwyck are wonderful in the film, and especially wonderful together, but it's hard to enjoy their battling, given its none-too-subtle subtext.  Stanwyck's character is unusually aggressive and self-possessed sexually, at least for a Hollywood film, and certainly for a Hollywood Western, but the fact that the center of her erotic imagination is her father undermines the excitement and appeal of this.

By the time the two come to a lethal impasse, you aren't really rooting for either of them to win the contest of wills — you're just watching an emotional train wreck in progress.  There is a moment of transcendence and hope at the end, but by then you may be too morbidly invested in the impending wreck to really enjoy it.

Duel In the Sun was a precedent for dark, vaguely perverse, Gothic Westerns.  Like The Furies, it was adapted from a novel by Niven Busch, who as novelist and screenwriter played a crucial role in the development of the edgier, more adult Westerns of the late Forties and Fifties.  The Furies set a more enduring pattern for the Gothic Western in placing a powerful, somewhat twisted female protagonist at the center of the tale — someone who wanted to contend with men on their own terms, distinguishing her from Pearl in Duel in the Sun (above), whose only weapon was an unbridled sensuality.

Stanwyck in this film, with her arsenal of traditionally male weapons, was the prototype for the formidable females at the center of such films as Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns, the last starring Stanwyck herself as an extreme version of the character she plays in The Furies.

The later films in this cycle are more fun than The Furies, because they are less grounded in intimate domestic melodrama and more in archetypal myths about gender.  We don't ask them to be psychologically convincing, as The Furies tries to be — just to violate our expectations and set us on edge with a lot of style.

PROMISES, PROMISES

My friends Mary and Paul Zahl made a lightning raid on New York City recently (from Florida!) to see the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises.  Here is Paul's report on the show:

LITTLE NOT BIG, THEREFORE BIG


I think critics make a mistake when they bring ideology to a production
of the theater.  In the case of the new revival of the 1968 musical
Promises, Promises
by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, with book by Neil Simon, a lot of
ideology has flowed out on paper.  A lot of energy has flown, for
example  to the performance of Sean Hayes, the lead actor, and whether
a gay actor can portray a non-gay hero.

Energy has also flown to the attitudes, within the story, concerning
relationships in the work place between men and women, attitudes that
are supposedly typical of the 1950s and early 1960s and no longer of
today.  (The musical was written and first performed in 1968, although
it is closely based on Billy Wilder's 1960 film The Apartment,  which he co-wrote with I. A. L. Diamond.)

As I say, a lot of present-day ideology has become involved in the
critical reception of this Broadway revival of
Promises, Promises.  No
matter that, however, Variety reports that
Promises, Promises is a
commercial success.  The weeknight performance my wife Mary and I
recently attended was sold out, not one empty seat; and the audience
was overwhelmingly appreciative, interrupting the show frequently and
offering the cast a long standing ovation at the end.

For myself, Promises, Promises is a little story, about a “little guy”
who wins the girl — because he really loves her and doesn't use her –
and therefore a big story.  In drama, so goes my notion, when a
personal story is well and compassionately told, that story becomes a
big story.  On the other hand, attempting to weight a personal story
with ideology, especially pre-conceived ideology, diminishes the
attempt.



Promises, Promises
narrates the disillusionment of a “little guy” at
Consolidated Life, whose crush on a “little” fellow employee turns out
to be a crush on the mistress of his married boss.  C. C. Baxter's sweet
and selfless crush on his “angel in the centerfold” ( reluctant
mistress to the unscrupulous Mr. Sheldrake) is crushed in the first
act, and on Christmas Eve!  However, when Miss Kubelik tries to commit
suicide out of her own disillusionment with Sheldrake — after a sorry
tryst in C. C.'s apartment — things both fall apart and come together. 
Baxter shows real love for his true love, who seems hopelessly and all
the time in love with another man.  With the merciful intervention of a
kind and honest doctor who lives next door, together with C. C.'s urgent
rising to the occasion of her overdose, Miss Kubelik rises from the
dead, or the near dead.

This love from a real and kind man, C. C.
Baxter, as compared with the cynicism and selfishness of boss
Sheldrake, touches her, and finally wins her heart.  The curtain “clinch” is credible, unsentimental, and very, very touching.  It is
made even more credible by the reprise, this time with a positive
vibe, of Bacharach and David's famous song “I'll Never Fall in Love
Again”.

Why does the audience cry at the end?  Why was the applause sustained
and very loud?  Why did the people leave moved, and happy?  I think
it's because the love of C. C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik is a universal
story enacted within a particular case.  C. C. wins Fran.  He saves her
life, both physically and emotionally; and at the very moment when her
long, passionate, hopeless affair with Sheldrake is exposed — at the
very moment!  This is a little story about little people.  It is
therefore big.  Why?  Because it's about everybody.  Everybody knows
about the little guy.  Almost everybody, male and female, is now or has
at some point been the little guy.  It comes with being born.



There are a lot of theatrical touches to
Promises, Promises that are
worthy of comment.  The notorious Christmas Party song entitled “Turkey
Lurkey Time” is a number people seem either to hate or love.  Mary and
I happen to love it.  I think we could say we LOVE it.  “Turkey
Lurkey Time” is just so unusual.  Is it about men being turkeys?  Mary
thinks so.  Is it about the Christmas turkey, soon to lose his head? 
Well, yes.  Is it a song about the sheer euphoria of Christmas revelry
and drunkenness?  Yes, too.  Is it a smashing production number with
great ensemble dancing and an unpredictable finish?  Yes, that, too. 
Anyway, “Turkey Lurkey Time” has to be seen and heard to be believed;
and I, for one, am still singing it.  (I made a mistake in the lobby at
the end, as we were leaving the theater.  I was too cheap to buy the T-shirt of “Turkey Lurkey Time”, with snowflakes against a brown
background.  Heaven: and I missed it.)

Then there is the unexpected moment of compassion for the “villain”,
J. D. Sheldrake.  He sings a song entitled “Wanting Things”, about his
compulsion for wanting things he cannot have.  The subject of the song
is what theology calls “concupiscence”.  As he tolls his confession,
shadows of the several women in his life, all in scarlet but
half-hidden by the lighting, approach him, then slowly walk away, and
vanish.  The number is haunting, and also even-handed.  No person is
completely a villain.



The producers of
Promises, Promises have added two songs from the
Bacharach-David repertoire to their revival of the show.  One of them,
“A House Is Not a Home”, has to be one of the great American pop
songs.  Both lead characters, Fran and Chuck (C. C.), sing it in
separate contexts, at different points in the narrative.  It is almost
unbearably affecting.  The actress Katie Finneran
(above) also has a star turn
as Marge MacDougall, the woman Chuck picks up in a bar on Christmas
Eve just after he has learned the truth about Fran's affair with
Sheldrake.  Critics of the show who panned it otherwise, mostly for
ideological reasons of one kind or another — you can adore
Mad Men
but you can't say a good word about
Promises, Promises — loved Katie
Finneran's extraordinary scene.  You have to agree with the critics
about the scene, and the actress.  But it's also true that Sean Hayes,
the lead, reveals a comic brilliance and timing as C. C. Baxter; and
Kristin Chenoweth has a lovely voice and compelling stage presence. 
(To me the actress seems a little petite for the role, given the
slightly tough persona she is supposed to have.)

Two other things to mention:



The character of Dr. Dreyfuss is played by Dick Latessa
(above, with Chenoweth and Hayes), who puts this
role on the map.  Dr. Dreyfuss is the physician/wise man/priest of the
play and even invokes God, sincerely, in a moment of crisis.  Also, the
number, “Where Can You Take a Girl?”, which is reprised twice by an
enthusiastic quartet of young executives, is comic and even slapstick. 
We would wish to believe that the kind of thinking expressed in the
song doesn't take place any more.  But it does, whatever one's moral
judgments are.  It's just that today the targets are not “secretaries” but “part-time staffers”, or “interns”, or “campaign workers”, of both
sexes.  “Where Can You Take a Girl?” is a spoof.  Everyone in the
audience laughed, even if they didn't quite want to.

Visually, the play is saturated in early '60s office decor. (Think
kidney-shaped ash trays.)  The art direction reminded me of Frank
Tashlin's 1957 Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?.  But the props don't overwhelm the story and the music.  The
choreography is terrific.  The dancers and their costumes look right to
the period, and they're not small bodies.  Yet there are also not too
many of them.  The high points of the dancing occur at the very
beginning of the play and during “Turkey Lurkey Time”.  (As far as I am
concerned, you could almost rename the show “Turkey Lurkey Time”, that
song is so eccentric and memorable.)



Mary and I had a blast.  It's rare you do something on an impulse –
like getting on a plane within a few hours of deciding to go, with the
sole purpose of seeing one show you hope you're going to like — and it
works. 
Promises, Promises works.  It works on almost every level.  If
you are going to take offense — at anything — on purely ideological
grounds, I guess you could infer something you didn't like.  That may
be true of almost any piece of popular art.   But I think it would be
doing an injustice, here, to the combined talents of Billy Wilder and
I.A.L. Diamond, of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, of Sean Hayes and
Kristin Chenoweth, Dick Latessa and Katie Finneran; and of Neil Simon. 
Together they bring together a story of a little yearning man and a
little beat-down woman (Kerouac's understanding of a “beat-ness”),
whose love affair becomes a big story.

THE HORSES OF SAN MARCO

To me, these are the greatest works of art ever created.  I had a nearly overwhelming emotional response to them when I first saw them, adorning the facade of the basilica in St. Mark's Square, Venice.  They are, of course, magnificent images of horses, and I love horses very much, but they also have an odd spiritual quality.  To me they seemed on that first viewing like an image of the grace of God as a team of work horses — patient, kind, tireless, gallant, indomitable.

No one knows when or where they were made.  Many dates and points of origin have been proposed — going as far back as Greece at the time of the building of the Parthenon.  They don't look like horses of that era of art to me.  The horses of the great Parthenon frieze have an otherness to them, an aura of the purely equine — they are magnificently themselves.

The Horses of San Marco have been imbued with the sculptor's emotional relationship to horses, a sense of what they represent in addition to what they are.

The best scholarly guess about them today is that they were made in the second or third century A. D., somewhere in the vicinity of Constantinople.  This feels right to me — they seem like works of the Christian era.  They were certainly standing somewhere in Constantinople when the Venetians plundered it in 1215 and took the horses back to their lagoon.

Napoleon swiped them in turn when he conquered Italy and took them to Paris, but they were returned to Venice in 1815, after Napoleon's demise, and set back up on the facade of the basilica, which is where I saw them in the early 80s.  Soon after that they were moved to a display room inside the basilica, because they were being severely damaged by air pollution, and replicas took their place on the facade.

Originally the four horses pulled a chariot in some sort of triumphal monument, possibly at the great hippodrome of Constantinople.  I suspect they feel more at home in a church, though the relatively small room in which they're currently kept does not show them off to best advantage.

Jan Morris, the great writer on Venice, had this to say about them:

They are works of art of such mingled grace and compassion, such magic
in fact, that down the centuries millions of people have taken them to
their hearts.  It is not just that they are beautiful.  They really do
seem transcendental.

. . . to my mind the way the animals incline their heads so tenderly one
towards another, the thoughtful look in their eyes and the soft
clouding of their breaths on winter mornings — all these things make it
apparent to me that they were never actually made by anybody, but
simply came into being as darlings of God.

Amen.

DEMPSEY'S

My grandfather ran a men's clothing store in Wilmington, North Carolina.  He made regular trips to New York on buying expeditions and his favorite place to eat there was Jack Dempsey's restaurant, just north of Times Square.

It was still open when I moved to New York in the early Seventies and it quickly became my favorite restaurant in New York, too, though I could rarely afford to eat there.  It had white padded booths and a famous round bar in the center of the place, and Dempsey was sometimes on hand, keeping watch over a failing business.  Once I was there in the afternoon with a date, just having drinks, and he sent over two autographed postcards of himself.  One of my favorite New York memories.

It closed in the late Seventies — I was there on the last night.  It was jammed and the crowd was manic and unpleasant.  My girlfriend and I managed a quick drink and then fled.  Not one of my favorite New York memories.

I still go back there in my dreams.

THE VENUS D'URBINO

By Titian.

The Venus d'Urbino doesn't look classical or Byzantine.  It looks Italian, which made it famous.  The painting was decided to be cool.

                                                                                — Dave Hickey

THE WESTERNER

A color publicity still of Gary Cooper in The Westerner by William Wyler, which was shot in black-and-white.  Cooper injured his hip as a child in a car accident and had a kind of crooked seat in a saddle, but his balance and grace were uncanny — it's always beautiful to watch him ride.  He does some terrific riding in this film.

ONCE UPON A TIME

An early 20th-Century autochrome of the Plaza Hotel in New York, from the amazing Albert Kahn Archives Of the Planet.  The autochrome was one of the first processes for color photography.  It was patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and first marketed in 1907 and it remained the most popular process for taking color photographs until the mid 30s.

SEAFRET

New tests seem to confirm Darwin’s theory that all life on earth shares a
single ancestor.  But what would this microorganism have looked like?

One scientist says, ” . . . to us, it would most likely look like some sort of froth, perhaps
living at the edge of the ocean, or deep in the ocean on a geothermal vent.  At the molecular level, I’m sure it would have looked as complex and beautiful as modern life.”

So we were all born, like Aphrodite, from the foam of the sea.  Above is François Boucher’s visualization of the event.

Seafret, one of my favorite words, is sea foam blown by the wind.