Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Lusty Men, 1952

There may be lusty men in the title of this rodeo western, but they’re no match for Susan Hayward, who more than weighs in for her own gender. She was a stormy presence in her roles on screen, both beautiful and independent. Here she coolly manages the attentions of two men, Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy.

Hard to say how this script would have fared in other hands, but direction is by Nicholas Ray, who brings a psychological depth of character to his films. In company with his other notable films from the period—beginning with the noir romance They Live By Night (1949) and on through Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—this film has more in common with them than the typical western.

Plot. All the same, though set in the modern-day West, it starts out with western elements enough. Mitchum is a drifting rodeo cowboy, a past champion, who gets off the road after 18 years riding rough stock. Returning to his old home ranch, he finds it occupied by an old-timer ready to sell it for the right price to a young couple, Kennedy and Hayward.

Rodeo cowboys, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1974
Kennedy gets Mitchum hired on at a nearby ranch, where he is foreman. Before long, Mitchum’s talk of rodeoing gets Kennedy eager to give it a try. With his winnings, he tells Hayward, they’ll be able to pay the asking price for the ranch a whole lot faster.

With coaching from Mitchum, Kennedy follows the circuit, and Hayward goes along for the ride. Soon the winnings begin to add up, and Kennedy is swept along by a rising wave of self-confidence. When he’s won enough to buy the ranch, he’s become addicted to the excitement and the glory. Ranch life no longer interests him.

Hayward’s patience with both men eventually runs out. When Mitchum puts the moves on her, she turns him down. It takes a fatal accident in the arena for Kennedy to see that giving his best years to the rodeo is not such a good idea after all.

Rodeo parade, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1974
Noir. Shot in deep-focus black and white, with documentary-style footage of rodeo events, crowds, and parades, the film has a noir feel. Increasingly, scenes take place at night, and Ray lets the shadows reinforce the darkness that gathers around his characters.

Rodeo has its seamy side, and the film doesn’t sugarcoat that either. The “lusty” men who populate the background of the film are often seen drinking and gambling. Arthur Hunnicutt plays a washed-out rodeo cowboy full of rodeo stories and sporting the scars of a career that must have broken every bone in his body at least once. He gimps around, broke, relying on handouts from the men who remember his good old days.

With some pretty broad hints, we gather that Mitchum has had an on-and-off-again carnal relationship with a trick rider (Maria Hart). There’s a feverish scene where Hayward needs Mitchum’s help to get the shower working in Hart’s trailer.

Then, when the stock grower (Frank Faylen) discovers Mitchum there with a cup of coffee and hears someone in the shower, he gets testy believing it’s Hart. Ray nicely plays up the mounting tension between the two men as they sit in the cramped kitchen.

Saddle bronc rider, 1953
Performances. Robert Mitchum’s smoldering cool is perfect for this part. He and Hayward illuminate the screen when they are together. It hardly has room for both of them. While there’s just enough flirtation to make you suspect the two are holding back what each is at the point of saying, there are just as many flinty moments between them. She may have the impulse to fall for him, but she’s also got the sense to see he’s a handsome loser.

Arthur Kennedy seldom gets parts that make me comfortable with his characters. They invariably have a weakness that is evident from the first scene. You suspect he’s being dishonest about something and that it will eventually catch up with him. So it goes in this film. Hayward’s devotion to him seems ill founded, but she doesn’t have a lot of options either.

Maybe least plausible is Kennedy’s quick success as a rough stock rider. An inexperienced rodeo cowboy would take years to develop the skill that seems to come to him naturally. Most riders never achieve it and do well to simply win enough to cover expenses and entry fees. 

Rodeo parade rider, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1974
Wrapping up. The Lusty Men is one of several darkish modern-day westerns from this period. You think of Track of the Cat (1954), The Misfits (1961), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Hud (1963). All speak to the passing of the West and the dying of old values, though in the last scenes, The Lusty Men still finds a little life left in them.

Screenwriters David Dortort and Horace McCoy based their script on a Life magazine article by Texas author and journalist, Claude Stanush. Dortort went on to a career in TV as producer of The Restless Gun (1957-1959) and The High Chaparral (1967-1971). He may be best known as creator and producer of Bonanza (1959-1973). Horace McCoy’s Hollywood years covered over two decades, with several westerns. His novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was adapted to film in 1969.

The Lusty Men is hard to find on DVD (try ebay). The film occasionally screens on Turner Classic Movies. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Further reading:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Matthew Pizzolato, Outlaw


  1. Some day I need to sit down and watch westerns from this period. Hud is the only one of these I've seen

  2. And then there was the Steve McQueen movie about rodeo cowboys that stays with me still. Was it Junior Bonner? The theme of people from the past coping with modern times is a recurrent and perennially interesting drama, probably because it applies to so many people as we move from the industrial age deeper into the information age. Lonely Are the Brave was just such a movie. Kirk Douglas proved that he was a fine actor in that heart-rending performance.

    Thanks for another good review, Ron! I always enjoy your take on Western fiction -- in books or movies!

    1. Thanks, Carol. Another quasi-modern western is THE HI-LO COUNTRY, with a central character like Kirk Douglas' cowboy in LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, who tries to live like it's still 1880.