October 14, 2014
The Lusty Men is haunted by the Great Depression. It’s about economic displacement, wandering the countryside to make a buck at podunk rodeos, and where the dream of owning a home seems forever out of reach. As with most Hollywood studio projects, The Lusty Men was built out of compromise and circumstance, starting as a Life magazine article on the rodeo by Claude Stanush, and turning into a largely improvised character study by director Nicholas Ray and star Robert Mitchum. In between were a series of scripts, the first by David Dortort, and the second by Horace McCoy, who had made his name writing about Depression desperation, most famously in his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? None of them satisfied Ray or producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, so they often worked without a screenplay. It is a vulnerably acted film, as Ray teases out the fragility in Mitchum and co-stars Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward. It is a love triangle of sorts, but one enacted with complete honesty and forthrightness. The question is between the stability of Arthur Kennedy or the soulfulness of Mitchum, and while aesthetically it’s an easy decision (Mitchum has never been so beautiful), for characters raised dirt poor it’s a heart-wrenching choice. The Lusty Men, recently restored on 35mm by Warner Brothers, The Film Foundation and the Nicholas Ray Foundation, has finally been released on DVD by the Warner Archive (it also airs 11/4 at 1:30PM on TCM). Ever since the restored print screened at the New York Film Festival last year, I was patiently awaiting a Blu-ray release, but this will have to do. Luckily the DVD is in fine shape, aside from the beat-up archival rodeo footage which sets the stage for the drama to come.
The producing team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna had a distribution deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO to make sixty films in under six years, according Bernard Eisenschitz’s essential Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. The Hollywood Reporter called it “The biggest independent transaction in industry history”. They made four: Behave Yourself! (’51), The Blue Veil (’51), Clash By Night (’52) and The Lusty Men. Hughes’ legendary indecision led to projects dragging on for years. One of these was the comedy thriller Macao (’52), credited to director Josef Von Sternberg, but much of it was re-shot by Mel Ferrer and Nicholas Ray, who telegraphed Sternberg to gain his permission for the re-shoots. Sternberg responded, “I’m here in New Jersey with my rose garden, I’m close to Wall Street and my art gallery. Go ahead.” Unhappy with the results, Sternberg later told Kevin Brownlow: “Nicholas Ray is an idiot. He did terrible things to Macao.”
But Ray was in Howard Hughes’ good graces for that carpenter job, and Wald and Krasna considered him for the director on Clash By Night, since Ray was acquaintances with writer Clifford Odets from their Group Theater days. But they also needed someone to take on the Cowpoke project (later re-titled to The Lusty Men), as Robert Parrish had bowed out after seeing the Dortort script, and Wald/Krasna failed to lure Raoul Walsh or Anthony Mann. The job was Ray’s, and he threw himself into the research that Stanush provided. Eisenschitz lists “50 pages on ‘Western dialogue and colloquialisms’, 75 on ‘drought and grass problems’, 120 on ‘general research, ranching and rodeo’, plus a collection of notes…on the modern cowboy.”
The opening sequence consists of archival footage of a small town parade, followed by the local fair rodeo. These sections are scratched up, possibly from old newsreel footage, and then it cuts in to Robert Mitchum perched above a bronco, read to hang on for eight seconds. It’s a brash intrusion of the mythic into the mundane, but Ray immediately cuts to an insert of Mitchum’s hand being tied to the bronc’s hide, an image attending to the technique of the rodeo rider’s art. That cut is an example of the simplicity and clarity in which Ray and his collaborators combined the everyday and the dramatic. The story is also simple. Wes (Arthur Kennedy) and Louise (Susan Hayward) Merritt are saving up money to buy a house. Wes works on a ranch, but is lured into the rodeo by Jeff McCloud (Mitchum), a former champion rider who agrees to train Wes for a cut of any profits he might win. Wes quickly becomes a star, and his dream of home fades. Louise continues to desire that stability more than ever, and can no longer stand to endure the rodeo’s constant near-death experiences. So as Wes and Louise distance themselves, Jeff inserts himself into the gap, seeing in Louise an alternate path not taken, a safe harbor in his self-destructive life. Louise has to make some kind of choice.
There is a lot of choreography in the frame to establish their shifting relationships. Early on they invite Jeff to dinner. Afterward is the clean-up, with Louise cleaning, Wes sitting on the counter and drying, while Jeff standing coyly in a corner with a mug of coffee, undomesticated and alluring. This arrangement is repeated outside, with Wes seated on a fence, Jeff standing, and Louise pitched in between. Wes looks like a kid, and Jeff a man. Cinematographer Lee Garmes sets up the flashiest version of this composition, with Louise seated in her vehicle while Jeff and Wes are reflected in the windshield. This all sets up the dramatic arc of their characters, as each goes through a different kind of maturation. Mitchum claimed that Ray didn’t give him any marks to hit. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he described their working relationship: ”
Well, you know, a lot of directors will give you the marks. When I act, I come in and say: what page is it and where are the marks? While the director is talking to the other actors, I check out the marks, and I hit ‘em. But Nick is a fellow who likes to discuss the scenes with the actors, what they mean, what my background was…. So while he would talk to me about those things, I’d be looking for my marks. He would usually end up these speeches by saying, And also, improvise. But I couldn’t improvise the marks. Since Nick usually told the cameraman to be on the actor who had listened the most when he was telling them about their background, about Stanislavsky and those people, a lot of times I wasn’t in the scene…
So maybe it was Ray and Kennedy improvising Wes always being seated, but it’s clear much of the film was worked out on the fly, scene by scene. Since they didn’t know where they were going, each sequence has a lived-in feel. This is epitomized in the melancholy sequence when Jeff visits his old broken down family home. He crawls underneath the eaves and pulls out his childhood toys – a dime paperback, a gun, and a tobacco tin that holds two nickels. In this silent act of remembrance a whole childhood flashes by, and an outline of the man we see on-screen, enacting the Wild West fantasies he had as a kid, fantasies that wear poorly on a man pushing 40. While fondling these talismans, he is rousted by the current owner, a crusty old loner (Burt Mustin, making his film debut at age sixty-seven) who visibly softens when he hears it’s the McCloud boy. They commiserate on their lives of solitude before Jeff departs, two generations of men too frightened to settle down, build a family, share anything of themselves. While Wes learns something of humility over the course of the film, Jeff develops empathy. Having been a direct man all his life in pushing the world away, he is just as straightforward in embracing it. The close-up of Susan Hayward when Jeff declares his feelings is one of trembling astonishment. It is one of the glories of the cinema. Her lips part slightly, as if ready to throw off her ordered life. But she is a practical woman, and a poor one, and there are other things to consider.