The Lusty Men (1952) Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray was a visual poet, using the camera like a paintbrush, each stroke expressively revealing an idea or making an enduring impression. In film after film, we see Ray’s camera articulate the emotions of his alienated characters, like Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause” or Bowie in “They Live by Night.” Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is another of Ray’s outsiders living on the edge of society. McCloud is a former rodeo champion, beaten down by too many years of too many injuries and hard living. He heads back to his hometown only to find out there is not much to go home too (the home he grew up in is now owned by someone else). Looking for a job he signs up as a ranch hand where he meets Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward). Wes harbors dreams of becoming a champion bronco rider which would help finance the ranch he and his wife have long desired to have. Louise fears Wes is chasing after rainbows and will only end up injured and worst, a loser like McCloud.  In spite of Louise’s concern, the three soon quit the ranch and hit the rodeo circuit with McCloud acting as Wes’ trainer and sidekick.   

Ray goes on to reveal the unglamorous underbelly side  of the rodeo world depicting it filled with damaged, rowdy losers whose winnings, if there are any, are lost the same night on women and drink. Their life is one of nomadic gypsies chasing the circuit devoid of any taste of stability or roots in their life. The women remain behind the scenes cheering and worrying at the same time about their man. How many more rides before he gets severely injured or even worst.

  Wes soon becomes a big star and the rodeo groupies swarm over him which he readily accepts. As success continues to come to Wes, he no longer feels he needs McCloud any longer,  exhibiting distain for him, viewing him more as a leech, sucking in fifty percent of his winnings, per their agreement.  While Wes parties with each victory, McCloud is looking to settle down, getting a ranch himself, and maybe even Louise, who is beginning to feel she has lost Wes, will come along. Louise though has not given up on her man, in one scene she barges into a party eliminating one such female contender right from her husband’s arms.

Like many of Ray’s films the story is downbeat, death though is seen not as an end, but as a rebirth to those still alive; a common occurrence in Ray’s work (Rebel Without a Cause).  Loneliness, the aura that “you can’t go home again” and a father/son relationship all themes that run through many of Ray’s work are also evident here.

Visually, the film is filled with Ray’s stylish, innovative use of his camera. Early on, he quickly takes the viewer right into the action as we watch McCloud mount his first bucking bronk in close-ups so tight they make you feel you are in the gate with the rider.  According to Patrick McGilligan in his excellent new biography, “Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of An American Director,” Ray, in one scene, strapped a 16mm camera on to a bronk rider providing the viewer with a rowdy shaky, jerky view of what it must feel like to ride a wild bull. In another early scene, what turned out to be McCloud’s last painful ride, Ray shoots the defeated cowboy in a long shot, slowly hobbling across the now empty, dusty, windblown stadium; tossed programs and other debris blowing in the wind. The dialogue less scene expresses every emotion you need to know, how after the crowd has gone, the rodeo life can be a painful and lonely one.  

Robert Mitchum gives a subtle and moving performance as Jeff McCloud, a man filled with  lost dreams and a beat up body who knows it time to move on. Susan Hayward, another in a long line of actresses Howard Hughes had designs on, was borrowed from 20th Century Fox for a role that was originally small and had to be changed to fit and satisfy her stature.  While Hayward is technically good, I remain unconvinced she had the right look for the part of a rancher’s wife, coming across as a bit more of a city girl.  The third wheel in the triangle is Arthur Kennedy who brings a sense of cocky exuberance to his role as Wes Merritt.   


“The Lusty Men” was produced by the team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna who then RKO owner Howard Hughes lured over from Warner Brothers with the understanding of plenty of money and freedom to make the kind of films they  wanted. Wald and Krasna lasted only a couple of years producing four films for RKO, among them “The Blue Veil” and “Clash by Night” before realizing they make a mistake joining forces with Hughes and soon left the studio by mutual agreement.  Wald initiated the project after reading an article written by Claude Stanush on the rodeo world in Life magazine. Other contributors to the script included David Dortort, Andrew Solt and most importantly Horace McCoy, the author of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” McCoy was a perfect choice to complement Ray’s dark vision, spending five months researching the rodeo circuit.  McCoy started out as a newspaper reporter, then began writing for Black Mask magazine. He attempted a career as an actor in Hollywood, failed, and began writing screenplays including “Gentleman Jim” and “Rage at Dawn.”   

As with all of Ray’s best work, “The Lusty Men” is filled with outsiders, a group he identified with and always felt a part of. The film opened to good reviews in October of 1952.


Nicholas Rays would have been 100 years old on August 7th.




19 comments on “The Lusty Men (1952) Nicholas Ray

  1. scott wannberg says:

    a truly great film-just watched recently-just got pm’s book on nick…


  2. scott wannberg says:

    jerry wald’s son andrew-a customer of mine at dutton’s-just had a birthday


  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, another great post. Mitchum was always good, and this is one of his most undervalued performances. Ray really seemed to bring out both the tough rebel and the sensitive, nostalgic inner part of his nature–the way he did with James Dean in “Rebel.” Not many of Mitchum’s films managed to balance these two sides of his persona so successfully. I especially like the way you put this film in the context of Ray’s other work. By the way, with your recent interview with Patrick McGilligan and this post, here’s something you might like to check out:


    • John Greco says:

      R.D. – I thought this was one of Mitchum best performances. McCloud was a complex character and I tink Mitchum brought that out beautifully. Thanks for the heads up on cinemaviewfingers Nick Ray blogathon. I plan on linking the McGilligan interview. Thanks again R.D.


  4. Sam Juliano says:

    “Like many of Ray’s films the story is downbeat, death though is seen not as an end, but as a rebirth to those still alive; a common occurrence in Ray’s work (Rebel Without a Cause). Loneliness, the aura that “you can’t go home again” and a father/son relationship all themes that run through many of Ray’s work are also evident here.”

    Absolutely John! This is an underestimated Ray film, and one that especially benefits from a formal review. Mitchum is indeed superlative, and on balance this is probably the best rodeo film, ahead of JUNIOR BONNER, which came later. Excellent analysis and historical perspective, I particular enjoyed that anecdote you remembered from your interview with Mr. McGilligan, when the camera was strapped on the back of the bronk rider!


  5. […] John Greco follows up his extraordinary interview with author Patrick McGilligan with a terrific review of Nicholas Ray’s undervalued “The Lusty Men” at Twenty Four Frames:              […]


  6. Jon says:

    Great review John. Your admiration for Ray’s work is palpable. I’m still delving through his canon and need to see this one. It looks right up my alley.


  7. ClassicBecky says:

    John, I think I saw this years ago, and I can’t help but always be tickled by the title — it seems to always be one that should be in bold capital letters — THE LUSTY MEN!!! And the title sentece of that theater poster (like most of them) doesn’t help any! Sounds kind of lowbrow. But it isn’t is it? I need to give it another view. Mitchum is perfect for that part, but Hayward does seem to be a bit too pretty and sophisticated for the part. Sounds like this part needs a Jane Russell-type look, or at least a mature woman who has a look of life-fatigue.

    Very nice write-up!


    • John Greco says:

      “Hayward does seem to be a bit too pretty and sophisticated for the part. Sounds like this part needs a Jane Russell-type look, or at least a mature woman who has a look of life-fatigue.”

      You are definitely correct her Becky. Hayward has the look of a city woman slumming. This is not to say she is not good in the role, she actually is, only I think she was a bit miscast. The title does seem to lead you off into another direction but I can easily get past that. Hope you get a chance to see this. TCM is saluting Ray’s 100th birthday in October (a month late) with a slew of his films though I am not sure if this one is iincluded or not.


  8. DorianTB says:

    John, as always, you really steeped yourself in your subject, and now THE LUSTY MEN has joined my ever-mushrooming list of films I haven’t seen yet but want to! I could feel the brooding intensity (with Nicholas Ray, it comes with the territory) and loneliness of the characters as you described their scenes. Robert Mitchum always nailed these kind of roles, and although Susan Hayward might have seemed a bit miscast here, her performances always move me. Great post, as always!


    • John Greco says:


      This is one of Mitchum best roles, and he has had plenty. Not everyone agrees with me about whether Hayward was miscast or not. Either way, she’s a terrific actress. Check out TCM in October, they are paying tribute to Ray and will be showing many of his films. Hopefully this is one of them. Thanks!!!


  9. Blake Lucas says:

    THE LUSTY MEN has long been one of my three favorite movies of all time, and I liked what you wrote about it very much. I only disagree about Susan Hayward–if you look closely at her filmography, you’ll see she is an icon of the Western and in a number of key films in the genre, not even modern-day ones like this. For me, she was perfectly cast in it and I wouldn’t want anyone else–and feel the same about all the other actors as well.

    For those who have the book DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES I wrote the entry for it, concentrating on the opening scenes which involve Mitchum alone and talking about the qualities of his acting that he brings to it. Even among his best roles–of which there are a number–it is perhaps the standout.

    I looked at the interview with McGilligan and remain unconvinced by his explanation of the title of his book (and will acknowledge I haven’t looked at the book yet and will but that title really put me off)–I think he likes titles like this, as his other books show, and he leans to too much emphasis on the personal lives of artists, sometimes long dead and not here to address things he says about them. Even if everything he said was true, isn’t it in the nature of life for artists, just like anyone else, to have personal failings, complex sexual histories and relationships, an element of self-destructiveness that might affect their careers?

    Take all this away and judge only the work that has been left and I believe there is simply no way to describe Nicholas Ray a failure, and no excuse for doing so, the director of (chronologically) THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THE LUSTY MEN, JOHNNY GUITAR, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, BIGGER THAN LIFE, BITTER VICTORY, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, PARTY GIRL and THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, all exceptional films, and I would argue all masterpieces, that make him one of the greatest movie directors ever, far ahead of so many others with smoother career profiles but far less inspiration, and the furthest thing from any kind of failure.


    • John Greco says:


      Thank you so much for your input. The cast of this film is excellent, an ideal role for Mitchum. As for my comments on Hayward, she is a wonderful actress whose work I have admired in films like HOUSE OF STRANGERS, I WANT TO LIVE and I’ll CRY TOMORROW. It is probably me but she just strikes me as an Eastern city type. Admittedly I have not seen any of her westerns something I need to rectify.

      McGilligan admits the title is provocative, which I agree with, and I understand what he states about chasing after an impossible goal, however not succeeding in attaining those goals does not make one a failure. Like you, I believe Ray has made several masterpieces, which I know McGilligan is kind of reluctant to admit. I personally thought his book was well balanced; it is a biography and not just a critical study. I do not believe he was exploitive about Ray’s life.

      As for the Ray films you mention, I am on board with you (there are three I have not seen but am hoping they are part of TCM’s Ray tribute next month), he was a master!. When inspiration struck he was visually a stunning filmmaker.


  10. Blake Lucas says:

    Sorry that last paragraph got away from me and was a little garbled grammatically though I guess my thought was clear enough. And just a reminder that Bernard Eisenschitz’ lengthy, well-researched and substantial biography of Ray from 1990 is called simply and appropriately NICHOLAS RAY: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY.


    • John Greco says:

      McGilligan actually references Eisenchitz’ biography quite a bit in his book. I coincidently ordered this on Amazon a few days ago. Thanks again, Blake!


  11. A superb film from the great Nicholas Ray. It speaks volumes of Wim Wenders that in his movie on Nicholas Ray and death, Lightning Over Water, the movie that Wenders heavily references is this one. Robert Mitchum was always a great performer, but this role is one of my personal faves.


    • John Greco says:

      Agree with everything you say here. If you like Ray, check out my interview with Patrick McGilligan on his new book on Ray.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s