Lusty Men: Nicholas Ray’s Tale of Rodeo Players Starring Mitchum and Susan Hayward

One of the best movies about life on the road as rodeo players, The Lusty Men is Nicholas Ray’s last film before he left the U.S. on a self-exile.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Lusty Men
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Original film poster

His departure was a protest against the McCarthy witch-hunting and hearings of the HUACC (though he himself was not formally blacklisted).

Based on a Life magazine story by Claude Standish, and co-penned by real-life cowboy David Dortort, “Lusty Men” is a contemporary Western with poetic imagery and melancholy mood.  It centers on a romantic triangle, occupied by Robert Mitchum, Arthur Kennedy, and Susan Hayward (as the woman in between), all in top form.

Former rodeo champion Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), an aging cowboy and a drifter, takes a job on the ranch of Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). The couple has been married for just two years, and there are tensions in their union.

With McCloud’s guidance, Wes becomes a rodeo star, which doesn’t please Louise.  Realizing the dangers involved in the job, she discourages her husband in the name of middle class domesticity–home and family.  To Louise, McCloud represents the grim present (and glorious past), whereas Wes still has a future ahead of him.

When Wes gets too big for his britches, Jeff goes head to swelled head with him in rodeo competition, with fatally tragic results. In the end, McCloud achieves the kind of heroism and meaning in death that had eluded him all of his life.  He dies because he pursues an unsafe profession, but his death is also a form of sacrifice.

Full of action, realistic details, and dangerous stunts, “Lusty Men,” Ray’s last black-and-white picture, is nicely shot by master lenser Lee Garmes.  The movie offers a good sampler of Ray’s famously detailed mise-en-scene, evocation of the right mood (here conveying the life of drifters, who have no home or property), and dramatic skills as a director who gets unusually good performances from his actors.

To achieve greater authenticity, Ray took his ensemble and crew on location: He shot rodeos in Tucson, Arizona, Spokane, Washington, Pendleton, Oregon, and Livemore, California, often using real rodeo stars like Gerald Roberts, Jerry Ambler, and Lee Sanburn.

The age difference between Mitchum (who was Ray’s age) and Kennedy, who’s a generation younger, works well in capturing the difference between a world-weary cynic (who’s been around) and a more hopeful man, who represents optimism of the post WWII cohort.

Cast:

Louise Merritt (Susan Hayward)

Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum)

Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy)

Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt)

Al Dawson (Frank Faylen)

Buster Burgess (Walter Coy)

Rusty Davis (Carol Nugent)

Rosemary Maddox (Maria Hart)

Grace Burgess (Lorna Thayer)

Jeremiah (Burt Mustin)

Credits:

Produced by Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Screenplay: Horace McCoy, David Dortort, based on the 1946 story by Claude Standish King of the Cowpokes, in Life magazine.

Camera: Lee Garmes

Editor: Ralph Dawson

Music: Roy Webb

Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Alfred Herman

Running time: 113 Minutes

Release date: October 24, 1952.