Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nicholas Ray | The Lusty Men

being scared
by Douglas Messerli
David Dortort, Alfred Hayes, Horace McCoy, Andrew Solt, and Jerry Wald (writers, based on a novel by Claude Stamush), Nicholas Ray and Robert Parrish (directors) The Lusty Men / 1952

You have to forgive this film for its utterly inappropriate title, The Lusty Men—it might as well have been titled The Randy Cowboys. Clearly, one or more of its numerous writers tossed out the title to attract prurient interest, or some studio head demanded a more “sexy” come-on. But, fortunately, it has nothing to do with Nicholas Ray’s sensitive portrayal of rodeo performers and their addictions to that self-destructive sport. Despite sometimes tense male-to-male relationships and both central characters’ love for the film’s central woman character, played by Susan Hayward, there is nothing even slightly “lusty” about their acts.

     Injured by a Brahma bull he attempts to ride, veteran rodeo rider Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) decides to retire, returning to his childhood home, a now crumbling, run-down place owned by Jeremiah (Burt Mustin). The place, however, would be perfect for a local couple, Wes and Louise Merrit (Arthur Kennedy and Hayward), who attempt to save money to buy it from Wes’s meager earnings as a cowhand.

      Hired to work at the same ranch, Jeff attracts the attention of Wes, who, without telling his wife, is determined to enter a local rodeo. When he does well, he becomes determined to join the rodeo circuit with Jeff as his trainer-partner, over the objections of his wife. Since he can make far more at a single rodeo that he can save from his own annual wages, he stakes his chances on riding, insistent that we will pull out the moment he makes enough money to buy the derelict farm. As he tells Jeff, who is a kind of worn-out, slightly cynical philosopher throughout the film:

                        Wes: A fella’s bankroll could get fat in a hurry, rodeoin’.
                        Jeff: Bahh… Chicken today, feathers tomorrow.
                        Wes: Now if he played it smart when he had the chicken.

       As a rodeo wife, however, Louise begins to perceive the other side of “rodeoin’, as she meets former friends of Jeff, such as Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt), who, once a champion, is a now crippled old man.

                         Jeff: Old Book used to be one of the best bronc riders in the
                         Wes: What happened?
                         Jeff: Punchy. Bronc shook his brains loose. He’s head wrangler
                                 for Dawson now.           

    When another competitor, Buster Burgess (Walter McCoy) is killed by a bull, he leaves behind a bitter wife, Grace (Lorna Thayer). Depressed by what she has observed, Louise decides to stay away from the rodeo activities, allowing another woman, Babs (Eleanor Todd) to move in on her husband. When he is invited to a party Babs is throwing, Louise attends the affair, pouring a drink over her rival’s head.

       Meanwhile Jeff warms up to Louise, at one point, when she has been offered the possibility to take a shower in Rosemary Burgess’ trailer, comically encountering a suddenly jealous friend:

                     Buster: (entering Rosemary’s trailer to find Jeff sitting inside. The
                         can be heard running in the background). Who’s in the shower?
                     Jeff: Lady.
                     Louise: (from the shower) Jeff, can you hand me a towel?
                     Buster: (Jeff starts to get up but Buster stops him) I’ll get it.
                        (He walks in on Louis in the shower and she screams.) That
                        ain’t Rosemary!
                     Jeff: Nooooooo.

 But when Jeff attempts to suggest a relationship with Louise, she remains true to Wes. His answer represents the kind of witty, understated dialogue behind much of Mitchum’s acting and reveals Ray’s brilliant manipulation of his characters:

                     Jeff: (to Louise) I do think I ought to kiss you just once,
                               though, for all the times I won’t.

       Throughout, Jeff has represented riding as an act that requires respect, arguing for a healthy fear for what they do, presenting the idea, once again, in his philosophy of alternatives:

                           Jeff: I’ve been scared, I’ve been not scared.”

 But as Wes continues winning, having now won more than enough to buy the house, he loses the necessary “being scared” about his profession, lashing out against his partner for his sometimes skeptical comments and for taking part of the money based on Wes’s own feats. When the two part ways, Jeff determines to go back to “rodeoin” even though he is clearly now out of shape.

      In the first two events, roping and riding, he does well. But in the bronc riding contest his foot becomes caught in the stirrup after he has brilliantly ridden the horse, and he is killed, demonstrating to the hard-headed Wes, just how dangerous the business is. Wes quits the rodeo circuit, returning home with his loving wife.

      One might argue that Ray’s film represents a kind simple and predictable plot, but the dialogue and acting make it one of the best of his earliest works, reiterating his ability to turn a series of character encounters into a more serious moral parable, as he does in later films such as Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause.

Los Angeles, September 26, 2012

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