Consciously or not, the characters in Nicholas Ray's cinema live as if heaven is just one step ahead, and hell just one step behind. What these tragic heroes learn - often too late - is that both heaven and hell are moving faster than they are. But that tragic pursuit amongst dreams and demons, filled with aspiration and anxiety, is what gives his films their kinetic charge. It's not even that his films are cinematically action-packed, though The Lusty Men, with its generous helpings of real rodeo footage, certainly packs a thrill. It's that even in the quietest, most meditative scenes, there's a restless waiting for what's next that keeps the viewer on edge, anticipating the revelations of the next moment. In other words, Nicholas Ray is the first existential action filmmaker.
Robert Mitchum's performance as an ex-rodeo champ, a stoic lump of washed-up man meat, attests to this aesthetic brilliantly. Seeming only to live for nothing more than whatever situation comes his way, his hulking, limping frame either ambles along or hangs upright in postures of cowboy confidence; his voice is even more rock steady. That leaves his eyes to play a virtuoso range of movements: glaring anger or downcast shame, lightning alarm or low-lidded arousal. His eyes are windows to the storm of unresolved feelings locked inside.
He’s complemented by a ranch couple, young but no less hard-nosed: Arthur Kennedy, an aspiring rodeo star whose teeth gleam with carnivorous ambition, and Susan Hayward, who turns a thankless wife-watching-from-the-sidelines role into a gravitational coil of skeptical worry. The three of them collectively map out a vast terrain of equivocal emotions, dubious dreams and miles of regrets. It’s a world of hurt from which even the young are unsheltered – for me the knockout blow comes in a flash cutaway that lasts just long enough for a teenage rodeo girl to silently mouth “I love you” to her dying idol. We hardly know anything about this girl, but her gesture both confirms and expands the universal heartbreak that drives Ray’s vision.
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A masterpiece by Nicholas Ray--perhaps the most melancholy and reflective of his films (1952). This modern-dress western centers on Ray's perennial themes of disaffection and self-destruction: Arthur Kennedy is a young rodeo rider, eager for quick fame and easy money; Robert Mitchum is his older friend, a veteran who's been there and knows better. Working with the great cinematographer Lee Garmes, Ray creates an unstable atmosphere of dust and despair--trailer camps and broken-down ranches--that expresses the contradictory impulses of his characters: a lust for freedom balanced by a quest for security. With Susan Hayward, superb as Kennedy's wife.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
- Time Out
I love “The Lusty Men,” Ray’s saddest work, and, like every viewer before me, I am felled by the beauty of the shot that finds Mitchum—a rodeo rider—limping amid gusts of trash through a vacant arena, with the sharp, heartbreaking light of late afternoon slicing in from the side. At the same time, I cannot rid myself of an anecdote reported by Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server. A leading lady was required, and Susan Hayward was brought in, on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, while the script was still being written. She sat and knitted for a while, as Ray spoke of his characters and their various plights. Finally, she put down her knitting and said, “Listen, I’m from Brooklyn. What’s the story?” ?
- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
The first few brief sequences in Nicholas Ray’s rip-roaring rodeo flick The Lusty Men tell us visually almost everything that we need to know about the director’s interest in this story. We see legendary rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) straddling a bucking bronco in a display of his masculine prowess. We see him as he’s thrown from that horse in a demonstration of how that masculinity becomes self-destructive. We see him limp across the deserted ring after the show as the debris from the bygone celebration swirls around him. Afterwards, McCloud returns to his childhood home to find it dilapidated and owned by another person. With no home to return to, he makes a literal attempt to recapture his childhood as he climbs under his raised house to find a stash of childhood treasures. This affecting, wordless scene shows how in Ray’s films, the protagonists speak most loudly with their actions. Though Jeff McCloud might not be a man of many words, we see that he’s a man with secrets who is capable of sentimentality. When he does finally start to open up verbally, to the man who has purchased the farm he grew up on, the two of them communicate in the language of the everyman, with simple but sincere platitudes and philosophies. Perhaps the most telling moment of all occurs when McCloud compares his calling to a career in horse riding to a preacher’s calling to the Lord. In Ray’s eyes, McCloud’s choice of profession might define him, but in no way does that choice limit his personal investment in the work he does. Even in the most seemingly mindless types of grunt work, the director sees the possibility of grace (a fitting stance for a man who frequently worked as a hired gun in the Hollywood studio system).
After McCloud’s personality is established, The Lusty Men becomes more plot-driven, focusing less on his loneliness and more on his relationship with a young married couple who are attempting to earn enough money to purchase McCloud’s old home. The breadwinner Wes (Arthur Kennedy) convinces McCloud to teach him the ropes of riding. Louise (Susan Hayward), Wes’ headstrong wife is initially reticent to allow her husband to risk his life in the rodeo ring, but she acquiesces when Wes tells her she lacks guts. Before long, the trio set off on the rodeo circuit, lodging at a series of trailer parks and spending their evenings in rowdy bars as they hustle from town to town chasing after prize money. The film presents a portrait of America's capitalist system as a never-ending series of competitions, and as a result, the characters are rarely able to relate to each other without the buzz of commerce drowning out what they say. The integrated stock footage of rodeo performances genuinely adds to the excitement because it is suggested that each ride could be the last for these cowboys. The pursuit of fame has rarely looked so gritty in a classic Hollywood film, but the journey still has its share of humor and affection toward its characters.
There’s a certain amount of comedy in watching the two leading macho men tussle over who gets to bed down with the macho, gravelly voiced Louise, a woman who seems tough enough to tangle with either of them. Still, Ray isn’t out to make fun of his characters. Shots such as the one where he raises a US flag between a composition featuring his two leading men in the foreground suggest an intangible feeling that they represent some larger, unsaid thing about the working men of America. There’s sadness in the observation that the men in this profession inevitably start drinking and gambling to hide from others how scared they feel every time they get on the saddle. Since they seemingly can only fully express their emotions though riding and fear is not an option during the ride, the internalization of that fear takes its toll, leading to a slow downward spiral toward regret in which the men don’t realize that their days of fame and wealth are passing them by. Ray does an excellent job of establishing these internal demons, so there’s genuine tension in McCloud’s struggles to save Wes from the fate that’s already ruined him. Because of The Lusty Men’s admirable emotional restraint, the quiet moment before the climactic ride where the men exchange a wink, a half-smile, and an affirmative “Good luck” has as much impact as any more emotive conversation could.
- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr
Written by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush, The Lusty Men is one of director Nicholas Ray’s three outstanding films; the others are In a Lonely Place(1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). (His vapid, sentimental Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, indulges the whining self-pity of its adolescent characters.). It is also the most substantial thing starring “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” plainspoken Susan Hayward, who gives what may be her most electric and captivating performance.
To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him "The Mystic" because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters.
Susan Hayward, who was borrowed from 20th-Century-Fox at great expense to RKO, was leery of the project from the start since her part was practically non-existent and had to be completely rewritten and expanded once she signed on. According to Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Nicholas Ray tried to stimulate her interest in the role: "He zeroed in on a mutual enjoyment of Thomas Wolfe - and certainly drew from her an excellent performance, but she remained typically tempestuous and cranky - Mitchum called her "the Old Gray Mare" - and on one occasion held up production when she refused to play a scene as written." She took issue with the dialogue proclaiming her character had the foulest mouth she'd ever heard in her life. Eventually, they managed to come up with new lines that met with Hayward's approval.
Unlike Hayward, Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy relished the macho rodeo atmosphere surrounding the shoot and even violated the terms of their studio's insurance coverage by performing some reckless stunts on horses and bulls. Mitchum recalled, (in Server's biography) "I get on...and they all say, 'It's OK, he's just a retired old bronc,' and this thing is turned loose...and I can't get off him. They'd go in and try and pick me off and my horse would turn around and kick the pickup horse...I'm bleeding from my hair by this time.." Even Ray felt compelled to show he had what it took, hopping aboard a bucking bronco at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "I guess," he said, "we all have a little of that wildness in us."
- Roger Fristoe, Turner Classic Movies
Ray worked very slowly, to the point where Robert Mitchum nicknamed him ‘the mystic’ because of the way he would stare at the actors, trying to probe them for psychological insight into a scene. Robert Mitchum was well-known for his ‘indifference’ about acting and filmmaking. ‘What page are we on and what’s my mark?’ and of course, my favourite Mitchum quote: ‘People say I have an interesting walk, but I’m just trying to hold in my gut.’
Although Ray was a serious artist, he was also a womanizer and a boozer and he and Mitchum connected on this film, both as loose cannons and as artists. Ray was the first to suspect that Mitchum’s supposed ‘indifference’ was just a masking of his real artistic and even poetic self.
THE LUSTY MEN is a great film. Interestingly, the parties involved knew it even before it was released. Mitchum, who normally couldn’t give a rip about his finished films (‘They don’t pay me to see ‘em’) actually asked to see some of the film before it was completed. Ray obliged and showed him two-thirds of the movie. Mitchum apparently left walking ten feet high, he was so proud. In typical macho man fashion, they went to a bar to celebrate. Ray later recalled, as he crawled home hours later, that his last memory of Mitchum that evening was of him regaling a couple of drunk FBI agents. Mitchum then proceeded to borrow one of the agent’s gun and started firing at the dirty dishes while the kitchen staff ‘got the heck out of Dodge’.
- Jon Ted Wynne, EInsiders.com
"This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own," Nicholas Ray said of The Lusty Men (1952).1 In this way the film's central characters (two men and a woman) recall the teenage trio in Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, who find their one interlude of pure happiness playing house in a deserted mansion. In both cases, only two can find a home. Here the odd man out is the hero, played by Robert Mitchum, who also reportedly co-wrote the film with Ray and an assortment of helpers, coming up with the scenes as they were shot.2
Arthur Kennedy's specialty was ambivalence, and he's brilliant as usual, balancing the weakness and decency in this callow, petulant man. Even Kennedy's looks were ambivalent; he's blonde and fine-featured, yet there's some subtle flaw that keeps his face from being handsome. His smile is too aggressive, his voice too close to a whine. He never has the calm self-assurance that Mitchum displays, so he's a perfect foil. Susan Hayward's pedal-to-the-metal style can get monotonous, but here it's well suited to her feisty, hard-headed character. It seems to be Louise's utter, grounded certainty of what she wants that attracts Jeff, who never seems sure of what he wants. That, and her cooking. From his start in Westerns Mitchum retained something of the cowboy's stance towards women in his movies. He is forever the lonesome drifter out in the cold, for whom a woman represents a warm hearth, a good meal, clean sheets, a home. He longs for these things but pursues them in a self-defeating way, often attaching himself to other men's families and falling in love with married women who won't leave their husbands. The closest thing he has to a family of his own in The Lusty Men is a little tomboy girl who travels with her father, a grizzled rodeo veteran, and who — in the film's only cloying touch — mouths "I love you" to Jeff as he lies dying.
In a movie review in The New Yorker,4 David Denby stated, "an actor won't last as a leading man unless he plays characters who want something passionately." That sounds plausible, but then what about Robert Mitchum? What does Mitchum want? I've come to the conclusion that Mitchum's enduring power lies in the way he leaves that question open. The motivations of his characters may be clear, but his performances blur them. The script may say he wants a woman, or a home, or money, or revenge, but he doesn't really convey lust or greed or any kind of burning desire, any need. And yet you can't just say he wants nothing — baby, he doesn't care — because that would make him invulnerable, and you always believe that he can be hurt, that he has been hurt. This core of mystery is Mitchum's gift to his movies. He's always holding something back. Trying to figure him out is like dropping a stone into a well and listening for the splash. It falls and falls, and you never do find out how deep the well is.
- Imogen Sara Smith, Bright Lights Film Journal
ABOUT NICHOLAS RAY
Nicholas Ray gets his own stand-alone webliography
ABOUT ROBERT MITCHUM
Tribute Page on Classic Movies.org with links to many other tribute sites
Meredy's Robert Mitchum Trivia Mania: 25 questions to test your knowledge of the actor
Robert Peters' complete volume of poetry, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum
Before Mitchum was two years old, his father, a blue-collar railroad worker, was crushed to death between two goods vans and through much of the Thirties he rode the rods around Depression America as an itinerant labourer, doing some boxing and serving a stretch on a Deep South chain gang for vagrancy. He wound up in California and, in 1940, married the woman he'd stay with for the rest of his life, despite his endless philandering and the drinking that would eventually lead to the Betty Ford Clinic.
He drifted into acting, appearing in 19 of his 120 films in 1943, his first year in Hollywood, and getting an Oscar nomination for his first starring role in an A-movie as an infantry officer under stress in Italy in The Story of GI Joe (1945). On the brink of major stardom, he was the victim of a rigged drugs bust for marijuana possession in 1948 and served a second jail stretch. Miraculously, he survived, his reputation as a hellraiser enhanced.
Tall, thin, broad shouldered and languid, he moved gracefully, had heavily lidded eyes that could express contempt, menace and a deep sadness, a broken nose and a curiously eloquent dimpled chin that he could tilt, pull in and thrust out to dramatic effect. Though he affected indifference to his craft and claimed to be averse to work, he was greatly respected by the directors he worked for. Fred Zinnemann considered him 'one of the finest instinctive actors in the business, almost in the same class as Spencer Tracy', and John Huston called him 'a rarity among actors, hard-working, non-complaining, amazingly perceptive'.
He first made his name in Forties film noir thrillers, the finest being the doomed private eye falling for femme fatale Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), creating along with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas a new kind of doomed loser hero. But he was also at home in the saddle, especially in such brooding psychological westerns as Pursued (1947), The Lusty Men (1952) and Track of the Cat (1954).
Arguably, his two greatest performances were playing psychotic villains, the first as the homicidal preacher in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), the second as the sadistic criminal terrorising Gregory Peck, the man who sent him to jail in Cape Fear (1962).
Most of his later films are indifferent, significant exceptions being his sad, small-time Boston crook in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and his outstanding Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975).
David Lean (who directed him in Ryan's Daughter): 'Other actors act. Mitchum is. He has true delicacy and expressiveness but his forte is his indelible identity. Mitchum, simply by being there, makes almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen.'
Mitchum on his career: 'I gave up being serious about making pictures years ago, around the time I made a film with Greer Garson [Desire Me, 1947] and she took 125 takes to say no.'
The 1948 drug bust Mitchum gave his occupation to the police as 'ex-actor'.
Charles Laughton: 'All the tough talk is a blind. He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He would make the best Macbeth of any actor living.'
- Philip French, The Guardian