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.