The connotation of the film’s lurid title feels slightly deceptive. Because The Lusty Men might have basic elements of men who desire after women but it’s fairly restrained in this regard. At least more than I initially conceived. However, it is a film characterized by a zeal or a lust for life. The male protagonists are intent or were formerly driven in the pursuit of high living with all the benefit such a life affords.
We recognize this outright from a parade rolling down main street and then “The Wildest Show on Earth” that features the finest rodeo entertainment the world over. It’s high stakes and highly dangerous but also invariably lucrative. Many men are drawn to it greedily like moths to a flame.
Nicholas Ray sets up a high-octane environment of thrills that proves hardly as straightforward as one might imagine. Because the first man we meet is Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a lifelong rodeo man who, after his latest throw, has decided to take a break and leave the tantalizing life behind while he’s ahead. It’s a young man’s dream, but only the veterans live to make it a profession.
Coming from restless stock, he returns to his dilapidated childhood home now owned by an old homesteader (Burt Mustin) only to find the old tin can he buried two coins in when he was a kid. They’re still there and they’re also the only true assets he has to his name. Instantly we have a read on him. He has no possessions, a drifter, laconic in speech. You know the type and better yet you know exactly who he is with Robert Mitchum playing him — his true bread and butter.
He meets a pair of newlyweds, the Merritts, and manages to grab a job as a ranch hand. The husband Wes (Arthur Kennedy) is taken with the aura of the older man who has quite the reputation. For the time, Jeff takes it in stride.
It seems every film I see Susan Hayward in has managed to slip past me for a long time. But she fills the screen with an undoubted strength of her own. There’s something about her upper lip that I can’t quite put my finger on, but together with her near imperious gaze, you have a face capable of supreme expressiveness. She and McCloud both latched on to something. For her its a husband striving after what she wants. For him, its a man who can help him. It’s reciprocal.
This dynamic makes Kennedy’s character the most obvious and least interesting though, like Rancho Notorious, he’s meant to be playing a young man and manages to imbue the part with a cocky ebullience. He’s intent on a certain life and even if he seems a straight enough arrow, his way gets clouded by these aspirations.
We received glimpses early on, but The Lusty Men is also the most visceral and intensive rodeo movie I can recall. What follows is an ugly evolution in our characters; Wes most obviously. The distinction being, everything he is happens right before our eyes as he calls on the expertise of McCloud to help him conquer the rodeo circuit.
Everything Jeff exists as finds its origins outside of the frame, based on years and years as a rider with an unspoken history we can never completely comprehend. Mitchum carries the onus of time well, and it makes him continually intriguing.
We can’t quite get a line on him. He seems to go around as nice as you please. Maybe a fresh word or two but that’s just his personality (Hasta Luego. That’s Spanish for, “If the shower don’t work call McCloud”). There’s hardly an advance and yet you half expect him to be working a David & Bathsheba angle, except a battlefield has become a rodeo. He keeps the cards close until the last possible moment.
There’s a pool of weathered supporting players he reunites with including the broken but resolutely chipper Arthur Hunnicut, who maintains a taste for the rodeo even though he’s long since left the corral behind. Then, you have the likes of Al (Frank Faylen) and Rosemary, a match made in heaven, as they have all but resigned themselves to the life. It might as well be in their blood. The beauty is how their characters are almost contours but we want to know them more than we have the chance to.
Whenever you have a group of people who have bought into some sort of madness whether the stage, aviation, rodeo, or anything else, there is a near-insane amount of devotion put into the lifestyle. Look at Stage Door, Only Angels Have Ways, or West Side Story to see have a certain mentality easily pervades the world to create a collective consciousness of sorts.
This lifestyle becomes the status quo, and they have become so used to it and callous to the hardship, any trauma can hardly shake them out of it. Not unsurprisingly, such a dangerous profession comes with deadly repercussions. These hardships are what shake a person out of their reverie to decry the hazards at hand. It seems inconsequential to document them here because you can probably imagine them already.
With every person, it becomes a matter of weighing the pros and cons. There’s the choice of getting out of the cycle and ridding yourself of the dangers or otherwise willingly submitting yourself to the consequences. Mitchum is such a curious individual because he seems to have made his peace and yet a woman he’s only pursuing half-heartedly leads him to take uncharacteristic risks.
But far from being regretful, in the end, he takes the tragedy thrust upon him with his usual coolness and casual indifference. Bitterness is not in his vocabulary, and he goes out just as he came into the film, aloof and yet somehow still showing a certain vulnerability. Because he allows affection to best him. There’s nothing shameful in that.
Rather than let the same lifestyle savage their souls, the Merritts get away too. Wes is shaken free of his bull-headedness, realizing in an instant there are far more important things than fast cash. What springs to mind are the care of a loving wife and the ability to grow old and gray together without the fear of constant peril.
The resolution is almost expected, but the actors shine as Nicholas Ray guides us through yet another outsider’s tale infused with authentic emotional longing. The film is constantly shifting between what we might easily call tropes or commonalities until it comes away with something different. It helps when you have three leading stars more than capable of playing the scenes with resonance, emoting when its called for and providing their characters with a greater tangibility. Ray is one of those directors who continually manages to transcend his material.
The Lusty Men predates many similar films that spring to mind from Giant (1956) to The Misfits (1961) and even Hud (1963). Each one details a modern depiction of the West — having totally relinquished its glorious image and succumbed to real-world issues of aging, isolation, and decay. If you can believe it, The Lusty Men just might be the least ostentatious of them all, but it’s equally ripe for rediscovery.