‘The Power of the Dog’ evokes classic Oscar-nominated Westerns ‘Duel in the Sun’ and ‘The Furies’

Westerns are populated with cowboys, gunslingers, bandits, Native American, horses, cows and buffalos. But the genre is much more complex than shoot-‘em-ups. In fact, the best Westerns are Shakespearean in nature exploring such universal subjects as love, hate, revenge, greed, power and good versus evil. One of the most popular sub-genres is the “ranch” Western where the patriarch or matriarch — remember Barbara Stanwyck in “The Big Valley”– governs with a strict and often violent hand. They act like they are above the law and often take legal matters into their own hand. They are often widowers or widows and have sons who run the spectrum from hero to villain.

Jane Campion’s highly acclaimed Netflix Oscar-contender “The Power of the Dog” falls into this sub-genre. Set in Montana in 1925, the story revolves around the charismatic but sadistic Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) who relishes being the master of a cattle rancher. He’s a master manipulator who believes he sees a shadow of a dog in the hills near the ranch. Definitely beta in their relationship is his gentlemanly brother George (Jesse Plemmons). Their functionally dysfunctional life goes into a tumultuous tailspin when George marries a widow (Kirsten Dunst), who relies too much on alcohol to calm her nerves, with a quiet frail teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, numerous “ranch” westerns were surprisingly frank and at times ran into problems with the Production Code and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency. One such film was David O. Selznick’s lavish and sultry 1946 “Duel in the Sun,” which was often jokingly called “Lust in the Dust.” After the critical, commercial and Oscar success of his 1939 production “Gone with the Wind,” Selznick had been looking for his next major blockbuster. And he thought he found it in Niven Busch’s novel of the same name. Selznick also was looking for a project that would turn Jennifer Jones, who won the Best Actress Oscar for 1943’s “The Song of Bernadette” and was having an affair with the filmmaker, into one of the brightest lights in Tinseltown.

King Vidor is the listed director of the Technicolor production, but several other directors were brought into help including William Dieterle. Jones played Pearl Chavez, a nostril-flaring mixed race young woman, sent to live with her late father’s (Herbert Marshall) sweet, caring second cousin Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) and former love on a big ranch overseen by her vile wheel-bound husband (Lionel Barrymore), called the Senator, who isn’t happy having Pearl living there. Definitely happy are good son Jesse (Joseph Cotten), an attorney and a fashionista, and the devilishly handsome bad son Lewt (Gregory Peck) who isn’t above killing folks or even blowing up a train. Of course, Lewt is the Senator’s favorite while the increasingly frail Laura Belle adores Jesse.

It isn’t long before Lewt has his way with Pearl; leading to a truly strange denouement between the two in massive canyon far from the ranch. Charles Bickford plays a fellow rancher Pearl decides to marry after Lewt goes back on his promise to marry her—things don’t end well for him-and Walter Huston plays the “Sinkiller” fire-and-brimstone preacher who warns Pearl about sins of the flesh. Jones earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Gish reaped her only Oscar bid for her featured role.

Even 72 years after its release, the relationship between rancher T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston in his final film role) and his headstrong daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) in Anthony Mann’s “The Furies,”  is still a bit of an eye-popper. The film begins with the forward: “This the story of the 1870s…In the New Mexico territory…when men created kingdoms out of land and cattle…and rule their empires like feudal lords. Such a man was T.C. Jeffords…who wrote this flaming page in the history of the great Southwest.

Just as “Duel in the Sun,” this “noir Western” was based on a Busch novel and was one of three Westerns Mann directed in 1950 (the others are “Devil’s Doorway” and “Winchester ’73,” the first of many horse operas Mann made with Jimmy Stewart). Jeffords, who is known by all as simply T.C., is the tyrant of the Furies ranch. A widower, he keeps his wife’s bedroom as she left it. He has a very tight relationship with his daughter Vance; there’s a hint of incest but only a hint after all this is 1950. T.C. doesn’t want anybody in her room, T.C.’s eyes light up when he sees Vance in one of her gowns. As much as T.C. loves Vance, he doesn’t seem to have much time for his son Clay (John Bromfield) who is as weak as Vance is strong.

Just how strong? Well, at one point Vance proclaims: “I don’t think I like being in love. It puts a bit in my mouth.” T.C. and Vance also have fiery disagreements eventually turns into hate, revenge and violence. At one point Vance disfigures T.C.’s widowed girlfriend (Judith Anderson), who has taken her father’s affection and place in the Furies, with a sharp pair of scissors. Jeremy Arnold wrote on TCM.com: “Perhaps the most impressive thing about ‘The Furies’ is how controlled Mann keeps things. He doesn’t allow the movie to deteriorate into shrillness, which easily could have happened. After all, the novelist Niven Busch also wrote the source material for ‘Duel in the Sun,’  as overwrought and overblown a western as has ever been made. On paper, the plot of ‘The Furies’ is indeed over the top, but Mann’s directing skills keep the movie from feeling that way.”

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