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Never heard of Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men? French film critics called it one of the best American pictures of 1952. Coming a few years later, the Cahiers du Cinema critics thought Nicholas Ray could do no wrong -- no 'new' Yank director elicited such interesting performances as did he. Yet the movies praised in Paris -- They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place attracted little attention in the Hollywood marketplace.
The Lusty Men is a top Ray title that focuses on themes he understood deeply, the feelings of outsiders set adrift at the edge the mainstream of life. This show of modern cowboys and the rodeo circuit seems to come straight from real life. Ray's movie star cast is clearly committed to the film, and star Susan Hayward has one of her best roles. It's a low-key drama about the risks that people at the lower end will take in holes of getting somewhere in the world.
Washed-up rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) drifts back to the ranch house where he was born and falls in with impoverished ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward), who are trying to save up for a place of their own -- just some land to raise cattle and a shack to live in. Wes engages Jeff to coach him in rodeo sports, with the idea of earning a bankroll to buy the farm. Louise resists because of the risk of injuries, and also because she can sense potential trouble with the handsome Jeff. Without asking Louise, Wes quits his job and the three of them become rodeo gypsies -- with Wes competing in more and more dangerous events and Jeff taking half the money. Wes really catches the rodeo bug, signing up to ride the dangerous Brahma bulls. He won't stop even when he has met his savings target. Louise feels pressure from all sides -- other wives' performers are being injured and even dying, and Jeff is a terrible temptation.
Partly developed by director Robert Parrish, The Lusty Men was yet another film that sat idle over a year after completion, owing to RKO boss Howard Hughes's lack of attention to his own studio. Hughes reportedly liked the idea of getting Fox star Susan Hayward on the lot for this one. It was also a good choice for his main attraction Robert Mitchum as well as Arthur Hunnicutt, a cowboy actor with a marvelous personality, 'discovered' by Howard Hawks. Nicholas Ray was beginning to get a reputation as a sensitive director of actors and was thought perfect for the show once Susan Hayward's part was enlarged. Veteran screenwriter and noted hardboiled pulp author Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) keeps the drama away from Hollywood flash, concentrating on life adrift on the rodeo circuit, living in cold water cabins and sleeping in cars.
The French critics were right about Nicholas Ray's dramatic intensity. A full ten minutes pass before the story gets going, as Jeff McCoy investigates the shack he grew up in: "I was born in that room". These hardworking men have almost nothing, as highly skilled cowboy work pays less than nothing. All they want is a place they can call home. That was the mantra for millions of Americans after the war. Besides the multitudes of young men returning from the service and eager to get ahead, millions more were uprooted for war industries. Louise had nothing and met Wes when she worked in a cafe. She had plenty of offers but Wes is the only man who convinced her he wanted a normal life. Now that bargain is threatened by Jeff's promise of 'easy' rodeo money -- and Jeff himself.
Rodeo life particulars are sketched through some strong supporting characters. Broken, punchy old rodeo hand Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt) provides authentic flavor with his exaggerated stories of the good old days before his leg was crushed. A vision of disaster is provided by the unhappy Buster and Grace Burgess (Walter Coy of The Searchers & Lorna Thayer of Beast with a Million Eyes). Buster's face was mutilated by a bull's horn, and he's overcompensating by gambling and starting fights. Everything Louise sees frightens her. Yet she admires Grace's Winnebago-style trailer, which to her seems like a hotel suite.
The beauty of The Lusty Men is how McCoy and Ray (with his trio of intelligent and motivated actors) communicate all of these feelings in a natural manner. There are no flash cuts to Jeff and Louise exchanging looks behind Wes's back, but we can tell what they're feeling. Thrown together in a small trailer, Jeff lets the attraction have its effect. Louise takes a shower trying to ignore the fact that something's happening between them. But she also roughs up a floozy (Eleanor Todd) who makes serious moves on Wes when he's drinking. Louise notes that a female trick rider Rosemary (Maria Hart) openly says she was once attached to Jeff; Booker's young daughter Rusty (Carol Nugent) likewise has a deep crush on him. The Merritt's one really fairly stable friend (Frank Faylen) is with the rodeo management and as such is not part of the same little society of glamorous risk-taking.
Ray makes The Lusty Men seem authentic, mixing location work, ambitious studio interiors (they'd never get away with these studio interior-exterior sets in color) and location rodeo footage. Susan Hayward never left Los Angeles, a fact disguised by the clever direction. Mitchum and Kennedy don't do their own stunts, but they work awfully closely to those violent bulls thrashing around in their rodeo release stalls. Both men convince as skilled cowboys, Kennedy especially. The film's transitional montages are standard but effective; we notice that one generic shot of the rodeo hobos on the road is taken in the middle of Los Angeles, next to the Silverlake reservoir.
Ray's secret seems to be finding room to inject meaningful human moments where other directors would just let things play out. No cut is arbitrary. A flash of Louise flinging her red hair to give Jeff one more smile tells us that she's attracted to him. A pair of close-ups between Jeff and Wes at a crucial moment says more about their friendly/combative relationship than would a full page of dialogue. Ray doesn't let his stars hog every moment. In the middle of a climactic scene with Louise comforting the injured Jeff, young Rusty leans into a huge close-up and whispers in Jeff's ear: "I love you".
Arthur Hunnicutt does have one fairly obvious speech warning Jeff away from Wes's wife, but it's almost the only dialogue in the film that seems even partially unnatural -- it's probably a last-minute bit written by Andrew Solt, Jerry Wald or Alfred Hayes, all of whom were brought in to cobble new material. Perhaps one of them slipped in a few lines that sound stolen from Bogie-Bacall exchanges inThe Big Sleep. And it is reported that Ray and Mitchum altered the script as they went through filming, too.
What's also interesting about this show is its unspoken politics. The rodeo circuit can easily be interpreted as exploiting men that aren't benefitting from the country's economic boom, that can't make a living in their chosen trade. But the men are not entirely without options. No suggestion of social injustice is made -- things were always hard for these cowboys and they aren't likely to improve. Jeff and Wes stay in it because they like what they're doing. Nick Ray was liberal but not politically inclined -- he himself was an outsider artist and social misfit. Howard Hughes must have liked him personally. The tycoon was ruthless with his background checks on 'politically questionable' leftists, and surely knew about Ray's past in the 'Roosevelt Arts' programs of the 1930s.
The beauty of The Lusty Men is that it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. 1,001 westerns try to express the masculine chemistry of proud men searching for honor while trying to scrape out a hard life; most show resort to painfully arch speechmaking. It's almost as if Wes and Jeff know that making a living as rodeo riders is not honorable unless they're proving their manliness at all times. In most shows about the mechanics of macho we can foresee the gear changes way in advance. But when Jeff goes against common sense to show Wes that he's still a bona fide rodeo champion, it all seems correct. It's as if one drifter makes a sacrifice for another, redeeming himself in the bargain. The Lusty Men has a fairly simple story but its characterizations are uncommonly rich and deep.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Lusty Men looks and sounds just fine. I was concerned that a technical problem might be behind its delayed release, but Ray's movie is in as good or better shape than most RKO titles from this year. We can tell when the docu-like rodeo footage kicks in but the movie always had that issue. Ray and cameraman Lee Garmes manage to retain a sense of claustrophobia for a number of scenes inside cramped trailers. The opening sequence of Mitchum being dropped off on a country road and finding his way to his childhood shack, is clearly a very personal moment for Nick Ray. It conveys strongly the old, "you can't go home any more" feeling. I listened carefully but nobody actually said the words, "I'm a stranger here myself."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lusty Men DVD-R rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.