The Lusty Men (1952)
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It's a dusty, exhausting rodeo film, so realistic that one can almost smell the horses. Seeing how the participants usually had to pick up their winnings ("day money") in a bar after what could have been a physically crippling time in the arena shows how easy it would have been to start drinking to kill the pain and the fear. Also the rodeo "groupies", so ready to soothe the pains and massage the ego, have probably changed very little since the early '50s. The character of Jeff McCloud has obviously been there and done that, and Mitchum plays the weariness with authenticity and sympathy. He also reveals his ability to play comedy in the scene in Rosemary's trailer with Frank Faylen.
I heartily recommend this film to anyone wanting to see a realistic slice of Americana, and good performances by all the leads.
The ending is not that hokey or fake as one critic suggested, but a daring act of poetry and subtlety. In Ray's work, there is always a strong need to constitute the couple and the family; the emotional pull this creates is always extremely strong, and never merely "formal" (even in "Bigger Than Life"). That high-angle shot, after Jeff's death, the word "EXIT", indicating both that the couple (Wes and Louise) are leaving this world, and that the film is about to end. The compression here is characteristic of melodrama and of Ray. Jeff's return performance makes Wes realize that he'll never be as good in the rodeo as Jeff. So, the competitive motive that has been driving Wes has been removed. Second, Jeff's death relieves Wes of the need to die in the arena. It's a symbolic sacrifice, Jeff in place of Wes.
Mitchum's been thrown by one too many bulls and horses and he's a burned out man. Still the allure of the circuit holds him in sway. He mentors Kennedy until they come to a parting of the ways and not just over Susan Hayward. The part is a perfect fit for Mitchum, his own footloose past made him understand the character of Jeff McCloud and bring it to life.
This was the first of two films Mitchum did with Susan Hayward. She's clearly in support of him and she knows it. Her big moment on screen is dispatching a rodeo groupie at a party who had designs on Arthur Kennedy. Her footage had to be shot first, according to Lee Server's biography of Mitchum, as Hayward had a commitment in Africa to shoot The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Among the supporting cast Arthur Hunnicutt, one of the biggest scene stealers around, is very good as another burned out rodeo rider. Mitchum looks at him and sees that is his future. In fact in the end, so does Kennedy.
The Lusty Men is a fine depiction of rodeo life, ranking up there with the later Junior Bonner and 8 Seconds. Good entertainment all around.
This is a cyclic movie ,beginning with a rodeo ,and ending the same way.A recurrent subject is the childhood nostalgia:Mitchum searching for his old rusty money-box in his parents house echoes Dean with his toy in the gutter in the opening scene of "rebel".Robert Mitchum , the stand-out of the film,portrays a cowboy down on his luck who meets another cowboy(Kennedy) and his wife (Hayward).He urges him to ride the rodeo,to make his dream come true:buying a ranch.
The depiction of this cruel world is devoid of leniency:we're far away from that of ,say,"Bus stop".And in this man's man's man's world,Ray does not forget the women in the shadow,who hide their fears,suffer and cry.If they made a remake ,I'm sure their parts would be passed over in silence.Women in Ray movies are strong:Crawford in "Johnny Guitar" ,Gardner in "55 days at Peking" and even young girls like Wood in "Rebel" and O'Donnell in "they live by night".
One can wonder whether this is an optimistic or a pessimistic ending.Most of Ray movies include death,but from this death,something new is born.Death is almost necessary to allow the others to go on.In "rebel',Wood and Dean reconcile with the adults who have understood Plato/Mineo's plight and near sacrifice;in" Johnny Guitar",monstrous Cambridge's shooting allows Crawford and Hayden to pick up the pieces;in "55 days at Peking",it's Gardner's sacrifice-while trying to help the children-who will lead Heston to adopt the little Chinese orphan girl.Here ,Mitchum did not die in vain: the young couple is now armed against life's harshness.
A very macho story that fits its handle -- this is the story of an ex-champion bull rider (Mitchum) who tries to help an ambitious rancher (Kennedy) who wants to become a rodeo star. Mitchum tries to latch on to his fiery wife (Hayward) too when Kennedy's fame and fortune begin to turn him into a cheating drunkard.
Some very nice footage of rodeo riding, probably of considerable documentary/historical value for fans of the sport.
Hayward and Mitchum have good chemistry, and Kennedy plays his role very well, giving conviction to a role that might have been thankless. The inevitable flare-up between the two determined men takes place, of course, with fists and in the rodeo ring.
So he hooks up with ambitious Wes (Kennedy) and his no-nonsense wife Louise (Hayward). For half of Wes's winnings, veteran rodeo-er Jeff can guide the talented newcomer as he joins the circuit. The trouble is Jeff is attracted to the loyal Louise even as Wes begins to live the fast life on his big winnings. Louise, however, only wants what she's always wanted-: a little spread of her and Wes's own where they can make a home. But Wes is forgetting those plans as he succumbs to the hard-partying of the rootless circuit. So, what will Louise do and just as importantly what will the love-lorn Jeff do now that the marrieds are growing apart.
The partying scenes are particularly well done, conveying just the right touches of cheap booze, loose women, and tall tales. Note that telling camera angle of the grizzled Booker (Hunnicutt) as he gazes up a shapely leg from floor level--- one shot can speak the proverbial volumes. Note too, the subtle way the script implies that trick-rider Rosemary has been sleeping-around, apparently an approved practice in these circles, contrary to the mores of the time (1952). Also, the shower scene when Al (Faylen) walks in is a neat bit of implied humor that depends on audience savvy for its chuckles. It's quite an intelligent screenplay, except for maybe the abrupt, but oddly satisfying, last scene.
Cult director Ray oversees with his usual artistic sensibility, though it looks like he was still suffering intermittent illness since an uncredited Robert Parrish gets a credited appearance from IMDb. And, of course, Mitchum is Mitchum, so low-key here it's hard to read his feelings at any point. No, in my little book, it's Susan Hayward's movie. By golly, she's escaped that dead-end tamale shop and nothing's going to stop her little dream. The guys may be physically tougher, but none can match her inner strength, and Hayward brings it all off in thoroughly convincing fashion. I can't conceive that the movie made money, as downbeat as it is. And I wonder what audiences lured in by the lurid title thought once they saw rodeo. Nonetheless, the film remains an outstanding example of movie-making in a minor key.
Set in the down and dusty world of professional rodeo riders, it also stars Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy. Mitchum is Jeff McCloud, a former rodeo star, now somewhat adrift and down on his luck. He stumbles into town and quickly latches onto Wes and Louise, a married couple with aspirations of someday having a place of their own. Wes also harbors dreams of becoming a star on the rodeo circuit, a world McCloud is all too familiar with and one that Wes figures could be his ticket to a more rewarding life. It doesn't take a whole lot of encouragement on Wes' part to convince McCloud to become his mentor and before long this trio is on the road in search of those elusive cowboy dreams. Likewise it doesn't take a genius to figure out that an uncomfortable romantic triangle will emerge, sparking an unsettling and inevitable chain of events.
This is one Nicholas Ray film that rarely gets mentioned, yet it is one of the director's most emotionally satisfying works. Masterfully shot in black & white by Lee Garmes ( "NIGHTMARE ALLEY", "PORTRAIT OF JENNIE", "CAUGHT", etc) it has a beautifully lived-in look that enhances the exotic world it portrays. The performances are all sterling and the dialogue provided for them (most likely compliments of Horace McCoy, one of the most remarkably and honestly expressive writers of the period) rings remarkably true even in the midst of some overtly romanticized (it is a Nicholas Ray film, after all) moments.
The rodeo sequences are exceptionally exciting. Of course, the movie is quite atmospheric and nicely captures the lifestyle of the rodeo crowd. There are some exciting moments (like Wes riding Yo-Yo) and some great lines. ("Men... I'd like to fry 'em all in deep fat!") Highly recommended, and you don't necessarily even have to be a western fan, just a student of human nature.
I do want to give a broader review of this movie for the type that it is. I don't think I've ever seen a seriously-made movie which depicts rodeos or bull riding that was not at least fairly compelling, as this one is. Whether it's 'The Lusty Men' or 'Eight Seconds' or 'The Ride', those who ride rodeo put their lives and safety on the line for relatively little pay in most cases. They pursue their sport with an intensity that may be hard to understand for those who live a more ordinary existence. Just as a compulsive gambler gets that little rush every time he scratches off a lottery ticket or pulls the handle on a slot machine, every time the bull or bronc rider nods his head and the chute gate swings open, he has a brief chance at success and a win and the thrill that goes with it - but he has hundreds, maybe thousands of people playing the game along with him. If he has a great ride, the crowd goes wild. If he gets bucked off, or gets hurt - maybe even killed - he has done so trying to please all those people in addition to himself.
The complexities of the motivation of the rodeo rider belie what some may feel to be a very simple or even 'dumb' pursuit. It is these motivations which create the opportunity for fascinating characters living lives that follow different rules. They live outside the box, even now as they have for decades, in pursuit of their dreams. That's why 'The Lusty Men' and the other rodeo / bull riding films I've seen have been so good. When you start with characters filled with the 'heart and try' to compete at rodeo, people who are not so bound to logic and common-sense, the storyline possibilities are nearly endless.
Things in the world of rodeo have changed since this movie was made. As one other reviewer pointed out, a rodeo rider of the past having to retrieve his winnings at a saloon after having gotten banged up riding that day would be the perfect formula for the start of a drinking problem. Fortunately, they don't get their winnings at a saloon anymore. On the other hand, the 'buckle bunnies' who pursue rodeo riders are still drawn to the lean, lanky, quietly courageous cowboy no matter whether he rode for eight seconds or got bucked off in two. He doesn't need to be a big money winner, because the cowboy's appeal has never been about money. To the contrary - his lack of wealth may be part of his appeal by making him seem more down-to-Earth and approachable, maybe even vulnerable because he is nearly broke. In this movie however, the young cowboy / rising rodeo star does attract the wrong kind of women because he has amassed some money winnings.
You don't have to be a fan of rodeo or bull riding to enjoy this movie. While it does revolve around those sports, the real story is what happens to the young couple and the old rodeo star who enters their lives.
Rodeos are Jeff McLeod's (Robert Mitchum) reason for living and when he is gored by a Brahma bull he is emotionally and physically spent. He desperately wants to rebuild his life and returns to his childhood home. Remembering some "buried treasure" he had hidden under the floorboards as a kid, he retrieves it only to find an old rodeo program and a couple of coins. Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward) are keen to buy Jeff's home and Wes, who recognises him as a former Rodeo star, gets him a job as a ranch hand. Wes has won a few events himself and feels that with Jeff as his manager they would be a great team. Louise is unimpressed with Jeff's cool and lacksadasical attitude, she wants Wes in one piece and to save his money for a house deposit.
Wes, with childhood memories of a father who was never his own boss, quits his job for a life on the rodeo circuit and what he thinks is easy money. What with busted legs and faces scarred from Brahma bull hooves, Wes is getting a taste of grim reality - and it's only their first day!!! The film creates an exciting atmosphere with wild horses, bucking broncos and leisure time spent carousing in the bars where a day's prize money could be lost in drinking and gambling. Louise sees Wes being sucked into the itinerant way of life and Jeff, after being taunted by Wes for sponging on his earnings, signs up the next day for all events, even though he is far from being in good shape. He hits trouble when his foot gets caught in a stirrup and his death sets up a pretty contrived ending where Wes, realising Jeff had only his best interests at heart, gives up the circuit for a little home in Texas.
Susan gives an unusually restrained performance as Louise (except for one hilarious cat fight) in this movie that shows not only the downside but the excitement that drives cowboys to give their all in the ring. It goes without saying that both Kennedy and Mitchum give superlative performances but a couple of the women step up as well - Maria Hart and Lorna Thayer, actresses I have never heard of. Actual shots of rodeos were filmed in Tuscon, Arizona and Pendleton, Oregon with some of America's most famed rodeo stars including the appearance of Cy Taillon - "The World's Greatest Rodeo Announcer". In fact I can heartily recommend Cyra McFadden's wonderful memoir about life on the rodeo circuit as well as what it was like to be the unofficial mascot as well as Cy Taillon's daughter - "Rain or Shine".
When Kennedy recognizes Mitchum as a rodeo star, he gets a bright idea--he can get Mitchum to train him so he can take up rodeo. That way, he reasons, he and his wife can buy the property much sooner. The problem is, Kennedy's wife hates the idea of Kennedy breaking his neck this way! Yet, despite her misgivings, he pushes ahead. Surprisingly, he is a success--and every step of the way, she is miserable as she knows it's only a matter of time until he's hurt. Throughout the film, he promises to quit...but the longer it takes, the less likely it is that he'll ever stop...until it's too late.
As for the stars, they are all very good. Hayward is emotional but good (and plays a great dame), Mitchum is his easy-going self and Kennedy surprisingly macho--something you don't see very often. The script is dandy and entertaining as well--especially as you see Kennedy becoming more and more of a butt-head. I also appreciated how the rodeo footage wasn't the usual grainy footage--and they did a pretty good job of making you think it was the actors actually doing these crazy stunts. I also liked the ending--it was downbeat but worked very well.
By the way, there are two bit parts to look for in the movie (aside from Mustin's). The foreman of the ranch near the beginning is Glenn Strange. While you probably won't recognize his craggy face, he's the last guy to play Universal's Frankenstein monster---having last appeared in this capacity in 1948's "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein". Also, a few times throughout the film, it's Jimmy Dodd (of "The Mickey Mouse Club") playing one of the rodeo contestants. At a party later in the film he's playing a guitar. If you'd just given him some mouse ears, he would have looked more familiar.
Ray's direction keeps the film on a steady forward course to tell it's at times simple at others complex story. He is mightily aided by his three superior leads, all fine performers, all stars in their day but none truly appreciated for their subtle skill and all contributing some of their best work in this film.
Mitchum pitches his performance perfectly, a rambler who knows no other way but is starting to wonder if what he's pursuing is worthless. Arthur Kennedy, a tremendously under rated actor, is excellent in a part that could have been eclipsed, since the real conflict is between Bob and Susan, but for his subtle shading of the role. As the main female protagonist of the piece Susan Hayward is all tough, flinty grit. Always a memorable screen presence whether playing it big, i.e. Demetrius and the Gladiators, or subdued as she is here she always carried a grounding gravitas that made her characters memorable. Her Louise is a sensible, down to earth woman who is clear in what she wants, has no problem laying it on the line and taking on anybody that gets in her way.
Strangely obscure film considering Ray's reputation and the superstar standing of its two main stars probably owing to its unavailability on DVD although there are rumors of a remastering and upcoming release. Very much worth seeking out.
Director Nicholas Ray has a beautiful set-up here: once-famous rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Mitchum) gets involved with an ambitious cowboy and his beautiful wife who desire to buy their own ranch and settle down. In order to pay for this dream, they set out on the road to tour various competitions. Along the way, the husband gets carried away with success while Mitchum finds himself ever more attracted to the steel-eyed wife (Hayward).
Ray maintains a competent degree of seriousness and professionalism within the personal scenes, not allowing them to become fodder for soapy action. This balances nicely with the rodeo footage, taken from live competitions but edited beautifully for a smooth addition to the story. It helps, of course, that the chemistry between Hayward and Mitchum is palpable, yet Mitchum still steals the entire show with his trademark disinterested, aloof personality. He remains ever so slightly out of our understanding yet remains the kind of mystery we feel needs to be solved. Just another reason why after all these years Robert Mitchum remains one of the most iconic and iconoclastic actors in Hollywood history.
Mitchum is outstanding as usual in the role of Jeff McCloud and fits right in with the rough and tumble rodeo world. Kennedy is perhaps too old to play a new rodeo star, and he certainly does not have the athleticism and physicality of Mitchum to be as believable as a rodeo star. However, Kennedy's character changes as the film progresses from an ordinary ranch hand to an egotistical star, becoming more distant from his wife's perspective. Hayward's character character changes too from a dutiful spouse to a woman willing to fight to keep her husband and in one piece. Mitchum's character change near the end is not quite believable, and as a result, the ending is not entirely satisfying.
Director Nicholas Ray was always ahead of his time, focusing on characters' conflicts with themselves as well as each other; in that, the conflicts served as catalysts for action and/or change. Ray filmed the rodeo scenes with a 16 millimeter hand-held camera, a device that modern filmmakers have returned to with digital cameras in recent years in filming within close quarters, to intensify emotion/horror, or to portray an environment with more realism. Ray made an interesting choice to film in black and white in between two films in color he did: Flying Leathernecks and Johnny Guitar, mirroring the very real black and white results of his characters' decisions in The Lusty Men. Arthur Hunnicutt has a supporting role as an aging ranch hand. Horace McCoy contributed to the screenplay. *** of 4 stars.
While this has more of an interest perhaps for the male fans of rodeos, it will stir up controversy as a part of America's past that today, animal rights activists look on with in disdain. Yes, the whole point of man risking life and limb by riding the hot-tempered bull simply to win a large monetary prize (or the even more controversial calf roping, not seen here), seems somewhat ridiculous when compared with other sporting events, and the idea of it as entertainment for the masses is also bewildering when compared to other distractions. So while this might not be for all tastes, it gets by merely on the casting and the unconventional relationship of the leading man and leading lady. Some interesting supporting players (particularly Arthur Hunnicutt) round out (or round up) the cast to offer the little details to make it better than it would have been without them. In a sense, it's almost a companion piece to the same year's "Clash By Night" which also took lusty characters in squalid settings, placing them in situations they emotionally could not handle.
Not that the plot is very original. An older guy takes a talented newcomer under his wing and the tyro gets an attitude. It could be Paul Newman and Tom Cruise as pool players or, more aptly, it's likely to have been drawn from a successful movie about boxing, "Champion," with Kirk Douglas.
Nor is the acting especially outstanding. When Mitchum got his hands on the right role he could really swing, but here he's his usual sleepy self. Arthur Kennedy, as the talented newcomer, is good enough but the role itself is formulaic. With each successful appearance at a rodeo, busting broncos, bull dogging, calf roping, riding the Brahma bull (pronounced Bray-ma), his head expands along with his ego and he begins to neglect his loving and dutiful wife, Susan Hayward, developing instead a taste for drinking, gambling, and loose blonds. Hayward herself is miscast. She's not a slightly worn waitress from a tamale joint. That's Patricia Neal's role. Hayward projects toughness but I'm afraid she's Edythe Marrener from Brooklyn.
It occurs to me that the film borrows from another pattern: the conflict between two partners in life, one of whom wants to settle down and the other who wants to keep moving and living the free life. Kirk Douglas was the rootless drifter in "Lonely Are the Brave," but he had no companion except his horse, Whiskey. A closer fit has Mitchum as the happy drifter and Deborah Kerr as the tough wife who longs for a farm in "The Sundowners." Crossing the line into the absurd, Bob Hope always wanted to go home to Sioux Falls and Bing Crosby kept coming up with plans to find a secret gold mine in the Road pictures of the 40s.
There's another thing too. Mitchum is an ex prize winner at rodeos and he stumbles on Kennedy more or less by accident. Kennedy agrees to split any winnings at the contests if Mitchum shows him the ropes and teaches him the tricks. But we see NONE of that teaching. All I learned was that when you're aboard an animal in the chute and you want it to open, you shout "Outside!" And when you ride a bull you tie your left hand into place with a rope, but I already knew that thanks to a shipmate of mine in the service who was a kinsman of such a contestant. There isn't one second of Kennedy's practicing with a bucking horse or a laso. Plenty of scenes of the contests themselves, aimed at an audience who loves to see some guy thrown on his bum and mauled by a one-ton brute.
So those are all the irritants. What lifts it above the average are the character touches, presumably from Horace McCoy's adaptation of Claude Stanush's novel. Whoever was responsible for the screenplay knew a thing or two about rodeos and what goes on behind the scenes. What goes on can be pretty retrograde. A man has to prove to himself and others that he's not "afraid." Kennedy often protests indignantly that he's not "scared" of being hurt.
The other thing is Nicholas Ray's direction, to the extent that he can unshackle himself from the more banal parts of the script. Mitchum dies at the end. But he doesn't declare his love for Hayward on his deathbed. That love, which has only been intimated, goes unspoken. The death itself is bloodless. And instead of grimacing, then closing his eyes and rolling his head on its side -- the side facing the camera -- as almost all Hollywood's dying people do, he rolls AWAY from the camera onto his side and clutches Hayward's hands. The camera drifts up from Mitchum's naked back to Hayward's face. It's only from the change in her expression that we know he's given up the ghost. There are a couple of other scenes, equally nuanced, and if Ray had been able to get more out of Mitchum and had someone with brains and sensitivity buff the script, it could have been a very good movie indeed.