Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Lusty Men (RKO, 1952)

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Close to a masterpiece
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There are several good rodeo movies. One thinks in particular of Bronco Buster directed by Budd Boetticher (the same year, 1952) with Chill Wills as a rodeo clown, Cliff Robertson’s JW Coop (1971), When Legends Die (1972) with Richard Widmark, or Junior Bonner the same year, in which Sam Peckinpah drew an elegiac picture of rodeo and elicited a superb performance from his actors. But tall in the saddle above them all is this last classic picture by RKO, a film with a few flaws but which comes close to being a masterpiece.

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Standard semi-lurid poster
 
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Whether rodeo films are Westerns is a question and this one probably isn’t. It doesn’t deal with essential Western themes such as man against nature or Indians on the nineteenth century frontier. But it is a later page in the history of the Western in the sense that it deals with the sadness of the passing of the old Western ways and the beat-up Westerner with nowhere to go.

 

The flaws? Well, although Susan Hayward was very beautiful, she was a New Yorker, and Arthur Kennedy was an urbane son of Massachusetts; the two make fundamentally unconvincing Westerners. They are too posh, their diction is too Eastern and they don’t quite cut it as a rustic Texas ranch hand and his ex-barmaid wife struggling to make a buck to get a place of their own. The script had to be rewritten to enlarge Hayward’s part. She had top billing (above Robert Mitchum) and was on expensive loan from Fox. (I would have had Ida Lupino: although London-born, she did that wrong-side-of-the-tracks Western woman supremely well). Hayward was a very talented actress and in fact was very good indeed in some Westerns (Canyon Passage and Rawhide in particular) but in this one, for me, she doesn’t quite bring it off.

 

Another weakness is the writing by New York novelist David Dortort and journeyman screenwriter Horace McCoy – although he was a rodeo buff. A lot of the script was made up as they went along – three others worked on it, uncredited – and it was very mixed. There are moving, lyrical parts but at other times it diverges so far from the Western as to become soap opera. Bizarrely, in the middle of filming, McCoy went off to write part of the other 1952 rodeo picture, Universal’s Bronco Buster. Then he came back and wrote the  authentic-sounding announcements by the rodeo MCs on The Lusty Men.

 

And the title was lurid – courtesy, of course, of studio boss Howard Hughes. It really should have been called The Losers.

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Mitchum, Hayward, Kennedy
 
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But that’s all the carping I can do. The rest is superb. In particular, Nicholas Ray’s direction. What an interesting film maker he was; just think, Westernwise, of Johnny Guitar or The True Story of Jesse James – though the latter movie was mutilated by the studio. He happily interspersed artistic creation with banal hack work. The Lusty Men is in the first category. Here he captures the atmosphere (just as Sam Peckinpah later did in Junior Bonner, or, to be fair, as Burt Kennedy did in The Rounders) with the inter-cutting of documentary footage – Livermore, Pendleton, Spokane, Tucson. We can almost taste the dust and feel the jolts as bodies crash to the dirt. There’s some luminous black & white photography by Lee Garmes.
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Fine photography
 
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The subtly managed minor characters are brilliantly handled (the moment when the young tomboy (Carol Nugent) mouths silently “I love you” to the dying cowpoke, for example, is extremely moving).
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Nugent, Hunnicutt: excellent support acting
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Arthur Hunnicutt turns in the performance of his life as the beat-up old timer. The nomadic pointlessness of the whole rodeo circus is underlined. The ending is down-beat (studio pressure for a happy ending was resisted).
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The film is as much about the stoic women as the lusty men
 
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Most of all, of course, there is the performance of Robert Mitchum. He towers over this, literally in the sense that he seems so much taller than anyone else but also in the authority and impressiveness of his portrayal. The sheer character and guts of the man dominate the film. It was one of his finest roles. Mitchum was fully capable of sleepwalking through a Western and he used to say that they painted eyeballs onto his closed lids, but when he was fired up he was truly magnificent. Tough, mean, hard as nails, he hints at a heart of marshmallow. He was in some ways the perfect Western hero. You believe totally in every one of his broken bones and erstwhile triumphs. He’s down on his luck, all broke up, an ex-champ with nowhere to go, but he retains one trait in spades, and that is integrity.

 

Ray wanted to work with Mitch again and tried to  get him for the Sterling Hayden part in Johnny Guitar over at Republic but sadly it was not to be. Pity, because they did superb work together on The Lusty Men.

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A must-see
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Tom Gries was an associate producer and he had interesting and thoughtful input to a Western, ususally directing and/or writing (The Bushwhackers, Will Penny, 100 Rifles, all good movies.)
The movie got good reviews, which Mitchum wasn’t entirely used to. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “With a literal and candid use of camera that would stand out in the documentary field, Director Nicholas Ray has really captured the muscle and thump of rodeos.” Sadly, the public didn’t know what to make of a drab modern Western with a tragic ending and they went to the rodeo instead.
But this is the rodeo movie and a must-see.

 

 

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7 Responses

  1. I would include Eastwood’s Bronco Billy and Pollack’s The Electric Horseman, or Burt Kennedy’s The Rounders in this rodeo sub genre, and one starring Cliff Robertson too.

  2. And it has Bert Mustin – who didn’t start acting till he was nearly 70! There’s hope for us old timers yet, Jeff!

  3. Reading this text again I have to tell you that I do not agree at all on your opinion about Arthur Kennedy
    To me, he is perfect in western, most of the time as a likeable or not at all likeable scoundrel, sometimes a coward or traitor or both. That he was born on the East coast seems to me irrelevant Many western actors are coming from the East. Mitchum is from Connecticut, Lancaster from New York, Douglas from Upstate New York, Randolph Scott and John Payne from Virginia, Gable abd Newman from Ohio, Glenn Ford from Québec, Errol Flynn from Tasmania…!
    The number of (often good) westerns he played in is speaking for him and you may think of an Arthurama one day…!

    1. It’s funny how we sometimes warm to a certain actor and ‘take against’ others. Often with no good reason, just a sort of gut feeling.
      Not that I am especially anti-Kennedy, though there are some Western, actors I can’t get on with at all (Karl Malden, Charlton Heston, Charles Bronson, the usual suspects).
      I do agree with you that it doesn’t matter where someone is from.

      1. I’m with Jean-Marie on Kennedy. I tend to think of him together with Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark, while clearly Ryan was the best actor of the three, the other two were good as well, and they all excelled at ambiguous characters – bad guys with humanity or sheer charm, or good guys with flaws.

      2. I fully agree on Malden (from Chicago…) who could almost ruin any film he was in, poor fellow, thinking of The Hanging Tree where for once he is saved by the stupid bestiality of his character. Well, usually, he was playing stupid brutes anyway, his major asset being his incredible face always rolling his eyes (Borgnine would have been much better in my opinion but maybe a little too young at that time)… it seems incredible that Kazan (and many others great directors) hired him so many times cobsiderong his lack of subtility and finesse…
        I also make reservations for Pennsylvanian Bronson depending on the films as you did on your recent essay.
        Illinois born Heston, to me is a true complete actor, his hardness and rigidity seeming natural and matching the roles he was given, most often a suffering, tormented or even haunted but inflexible hero such as his Major Dundee for instance.
        Maybe he has been unlucky not to meet his John Ford, Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher…

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