Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, and Arthur Kennedy in The Lusty Men (1952)


(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: David Dortort/Horace McCoy/suggested by a short story by Claude Stanush; cinematographer: Lee Garmes; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Roy Webb; cast: Susan Hayward (Louise Merritt), Robert Mitchum (Jeff McCloud), Arthur Kennedy (Wes Merritt), Arthur Hunnicutt (Booker Davis), Frank Faylen (Al Dawson), Walter Coy (Buster Burgess), Carol Nugent (Rusty Davis), Maria Hart (Rosemary Maddox), Lorna Thayer (Grace Burgess), Burt Mustin (Jeremiah Watrus), Karen King (Ginny Logan), Jimmie Dodd (Red Logan), Eleanor Todd (Babs); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jerry Wald/Norman Krasna; RKO; 1952)

“Ray takes a thin story and enriches it with depth, complexity, and interesting characters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”/”Johnny Guitar”) directs an outstanding contemporary Western that is slightly off-beat as it touches on psychological themes of despair, self-destruction and manhood. The simple story adds up to choosing between a domestically safe life or a rootless and dangerous life as a rodeo rider. It’s based on a Life Magazine story by Claude Stanush and scripted by David Dortort and Horace McCoy. Ray takes a thin story and enriches it with depth, complexity, and interesting characters. The downbeat tale feels authentic like I suppose the rodeo circuit actually is, as it’s depicted as a hard way to make a living. The film features real rodeo riders; the fictionalized story is based on a real rodeo rider who broke every bone in his body. Cinematographer Lee Garmes does a masterful job with the black-and-white shot film. The performances by the three leads are very natural, with Robert Mitchum giving an enthused performance as the brooding ex-rodeo star confused about life going by so fast and not quite as expected, Arthur Kennedy giving an understated brilliant performance as a decent man who becomes too obsessed with money and glory, and Susan Hayward giving a tough performance as the working-class gal hanging in with the lusty men as the beautiful prize who can cook, fight and comfort a man.

It opens as Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) gets bucked and stomped on by a Brahma bull, which is the last straw in a series of injuries. The now retired former rodeo champion is broke, having pissed all his money away gambling, drinking and whoring. He hobbles back to take one last look at his run-down boyhood Texas home he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and finds it in the same rotten condition (a metaphor that not much has changed for him). Has coffee with the current cranky elderly bachelor owner Jeremiah, who is anxious to sell the dump. Before leaving he meets a young couple, Louise and Wes Merritt (Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy), who are anxious to buy the place but don’t have the $5,000 required. Wes is a cowhand at a nearby big-spread ranch and hero worships Jeff, recognizing him as a former rodeo champ and rodeo rider for the last 18 years. Wes gets him a job on the same ranch where he works for low wages and gets Jeff to mentor him about rodeo riding. He disappoints wifey’s domestic ambitions by quitting his job after an initial success in the rodeo and going full-time on the circuit with Jeff his equal-split partner.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

When Wes becomes a star in his first year he changes for the worse, chasing women, drinking, becoming obnoxiously egotistical and forgetting his domestic dream of owning a ranch. Jeff stays around because he wants to take Louise away from him, but she remains loyal–clinging to the hope that he’ll come to his senses and return to a decent and steady life. At a party, Wes taunts Jeff as a has-been living off his back because he’s become a coward. This gets Jeff so riled up he enters a series of rodeo events the next day even though he’s out of condition. Jeff proves he’s a better rider than Wes could ever be, but gets dragged by a horse when his foot gets caught in the stirrup and he’s carted off to the hospital. In a melodramatic deathbed scene, just before he dies, he offers no regrets for his wasted life. But it deeply affects Wes, who walks away from the rodeo to buy the dream ranch house and thereby it’s implied saving himself from crashing like Jeff by returning to family life and becoming a dirt farmer and cattle rancher.

Brilliant and melancholy, it artfully conveys Ray’s ongoing cinematic theme of alienation and the battle for artistic freedom over the safer route of compromise. The story is built around a background of dusty rodeo towns, trailer camps and dilapidated ranches.