“I brought you Nick tonight, because I figured he could probably speak better about this film than anybody else,” Susan Ray said before a screening of her husband’s vérité Western THE LUSTY MEN at the Walter Reade Theater, part of the NYFF Revivals sidebar. The 1952 RKO release stars Robert Mitchum as a rough-and-tumble rodeo performer and Susan Hayward as the (married) woman who falls for his churlish charms.
Susan Ray, who was married to the director from 1969 until his death in 1979, read from the transcript of an oral history her husband recorded in the early 1970s. In it, he discussed THE LUSTY MEN and the research trip he and screenwriter Horace McCoy took to rodeos across the American West.
“The theme that I gave to the film at its very inception went back to my time with the government,” Ray quoted her husband as saying, referring to his three years with the folklore division of the WPA during the New Deal Era. “During that period of time I had experience with the ambitions of the majority of the American people – their stated reason for living, in all income brackets. And that was ‘to own a home of my own.’”
“That’s the original motivation for every cowboy that goes into a rodeo,” Ray (and Ray) continued. “Every single cowboy was there to find enough bread just to own a piece of land of his own. Every single one of them.”
That theme of aspiration flows through each frame of THE LUSTY MEN, practically from the fade up. Early in the film, veteran broncobuster Jeff McCloud (Mitchum) is injured and reluctantly decides to retire. After starting the film with a celebratory parade, Ray and cinematographer Lee Garmes shoot Jeff’s exit from the rodeo stage like a dusty elegy, as he limps off into the sunset with tumbleweeds of trash swirling through an empty arena.
It’s a powerful image in a film that seamlessly combines beautiful compositions from the cinematographer – an Oscar winner for 1932’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS – with extensive footage filmed at real rodeos in Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and California.
With nowhere else to go, Jeff instinctually returns to his dilapidated childhood home in Texas, where he is unceremoniously greeted by Jeremiah Watros (Burt Mustin), the current owner.
“I was looking for something I thought I’d lost,” Jeff says, as Watros waves a shotgun in his hangdog face.
Soon after, Jeff meets ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward). Wes wants to buy Jeff’s old homestead with money he hopes to make in the rodeo, but he’s just an amateur cowpoke. Jeff agrees to train him, in return for half his earnings, and Wes achieves almost instant success. But when the winnings start rolling in, Wes takes his eye off the bull, and begins to squander the money on booze and broads. Louise looks to Jeff for solace, and Wes violently rejects his mentor. Finally, Jeff makes a comeback, eager once again to reclaim lost glories.
“Some things you don’t do for the cash,” he explains.
As the flawed hero, Mitchum gives a remarkably nuanced performance, mixing his off-handed acting style with moments of genuine vulnerability. Arthur Kennedy, so memorably villainous as Lucas Cross in PEYTON PLACE, is an interesting choice as Wes. At 38, he’s three years older than his mentor, and at least a decade older than an actor who might typically be cast in a similar role in a typical Hollywood production. But Nicholas Ray didn’t aspire to be typically Hollywood, for better or for worse. And this tale of a middle-aged man making one last grasp for glory imbues THE LUSTY MEN with an air of realism that Ray apparently craved.
“It’s more documentary than most documentaries,” Susan Ray quoted her husband as saying. “The kind of love I have for the film is not as a filmmaker adoring a child, it’s as a part of the literature of America.”
THE LUSTY MEN was screened along with Ray’s first feature, the existential noir THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948). New York Film Festival program director Kent Jones called that film, with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as young lovers on the run, “one of the greatest debuts in the history of cinema.” Both have recently been restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and were presented in newly struck 35 mm prints. And Jones’ announcement of the screening format of THE LUSTY MEN received loud applause from the audience, which should warm the heart of any film lover.
“It’s a great film, but a lot of people haven’t seen it. Since we’ve made it available through this restoration, it’s been screening at festivals around the world,” Film Foundation executive director Margaret Bodde told the audience. “Any time one of the Film Foundation restorations is at the New York Film Festival, it’s like going home.”
For information on the Nicholas Ray Foundation, click here.