Thursday, March 11, 2021

#2,537. The Lusty Men (1952) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


After suffering a leg injury, rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) decides to hang up his spurs. While visiting his old hometown, he meets ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), who himself dreams of joining the rodeo circuit. Wes’s wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), is opposed to the idea, and is none too happy when Jeff agrees to coach Wes in exchange for half his earnings.

As it turns out, Wes is a natural cowboy, and it isn’t long before he’s winning one tournament after another. Initially, Wes promised Louise that he would only compete until he won enough money to buy their dream ranch, but Jeff knows from experience that Wes is hooked on the lifestyle, and will never give it up.

What’s more, Jeff is falling in love with Louise, who is tired of being a rodeo wife, and he figures it’s only a matter of time before she leaves Wes and the rodeo for good.

Robert Mitchum delivers a nuanced performance as Jeff, a former champion who speaks plainly and knows everything there is to know about the rodeo, including how dangerous the sport can be (in the opening scene, we witness the accident that ends Jeff’s career, and in a beautiful yet somber moment watch him leave the empty fairgrounds for the last time, limping to the exit as the wind kicks up the dust all around him).

Matching Mitchum every step of the way is Arthur Kennedy as the high-spirited Wes, a dreamer with enough talent to make those dreams come true, but it’s Susan Hayward who steals the show as Louise, the practical wife who fears for her husband’s safety, yet stands by him all the same, hoping he’ll come to his senses before it’s too late.

Along with its splendid performances, The Lusty Men offers an exciting, sometimes harrowing glimpse of life on the rodeo circuit. Throughout the movie, director Ray utilizes stock footage from actual competitions, some of which is positively terrifying (especially a handful of the bull-riding sequences, where riders are thrown and nearly gorged), and features several characters whose bodies have yet to recover from their years on the circuit. At one point, Jeff introduces Wes to his old friend Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt), who shows Wes his mangled leg (“Twenty years rodeoin' done that”, Booker tells Wes, “Leg busted nine times, kneecap five, and the ankle four”).

In typical Nicholas Ray fashion, The Lusty Men is a taut, effective human drama, expertly paced and superbly acted. Yet it’s the insight the film provides into the life of a rodeo cowboy that helps it stand apart from the rest.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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