Bucking Crazy

It’s been a banner year for Robert Mitchum enthusiasts.  Earlier I reviewed the underrated 1959 western The Wonderful Country, (in my opinion) one of the actor’s greatest efforts.  Now, from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection, comes the DVD-R made-to-order edition of another of his finest cinematic moments, Nicholas Ray’s hauntingly majestic 1952 modern western THE LUSTY MEN.

Like the man himself, the movie is a contradiction of terms:  bleak, stark, bitter, warm, poignant and humane.  As with all brilliant motion pictures, these emotions are not conveyed via dialog (although the script, adapted from the Claude Stanush novel, by Horace McCoy and David Dortort, is first-rate), but rather eye contact, body language and moving (in every sense of the word) camera.

THE LUSTY MEN chronicles the tale of sad loner Mitchum (as yet another tragic Jeff, a la Out of the Past), who portrays loser/winner Jeff McCloud, a big-time rodeo star who, nearing the end of his performing days, realizes that he has nothing to show for his past victories.  What makes this a monument to Mitchum’s considerable acting chops is his weariness and gait.  He walks slightly askew, carefully climbs into trucks, jeeps and other vehicles with teeth slightly gritted and suppressing a wince; indeed one senses every ruptured muscle, twisted tendon and broken bone this twentieth-century jouster has experienced.  It’s nothing short of subtle cinema acting at its most triumphant.

We first see McCloud making his way toward the modest home he grew up in, a place he hasn’t lighted down on since he ran away as an adolescent.  This sets the scene for one of my favorite moments in all of cinema.  Mitchum crawls under the framework of the house and digs up a long-buried treasure – a dinged tobacco tin containing a toy gun, a dog-eared rodeo program and two nickels.  He lovingly looks at the contents, his few positive memories flashing before his craggy face and into the audience’s.  It’s a stunning bow to both Mitchum’s and Ray’s style and technique.  Even this quiet reminiscence (without having to resort the clichéd flashback device) is cut short by the intrusion of the current owner, armed with a rifle.  It’s Burt Mustin, at the youngest you’ve ever seen him (he only looks 90).  When Mitchum introduces himself, Mustin invites him in for a meal and a palaver.  The wily senior citizen reveals that he is primed to make a quick, profitable sale of the property to a married couple, determined to begin their lives as independent ranchers.  Translation:  suckers.  Mitchum is amused, especially when the duo drives by to ogle their dream cottage.  The marrieds are the equally beat-down Louise and Wes Merritt (top-billed Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy).  Merritt, an amateur rodeo participant/buff, at once recognizes McCloud, and the surprised Mitchum gets the rock-star treatment.  Spouse Louise immediately regards him as a shifty saddle bum.  Nevertheless Mitchum accepts Kennedy’s invitation to bunk with them and perhaps find temporary eating money on the ranch where they’re currently employed.

From here the performances ascend from mere oater participants to the Greek tragic level.  Mitchum inspires Kennedy to quit the ranch game and try his hand on the professional circuit, for which he’ll collect a percentage of the naïve starry-eyed wannbe’s winnings.  McCloud’s motives are dual-fuel-powered:  to cop some hefty cash and to move in on Hayward, whom he has become infatuated with (to Hayward’s credit, these feelings are not reciprocated).  These rampant Mephistophelian kinks (“Just wanna see one guy get what he wants,” Jeff informs Louise) are soon smoothed over, as Kennedy’s formidable riding and roping prowess propel him to the top of the rodeo tour.  And, in kind, he becomes a miserable, cheating bastard – soon regarding the simple ranching life as chump change.  McCloud, now hopelessly in love with Hayward (who at last warms to the Stetson-wearing knight, whose tarnished armor is finally starting to shine for the first time in his life) and suffering from guilt for corrupting Kennedy, tries to make amends in what can only be called a contemporary Sydney Carton sacrifice that, like the aforementioned Wonderful Country, will hit you in the gut.

Filmed on location throughout Texas, California, Arizona, Washington, New Mexico (Roswell, no less) and Oregon, THE LUSTY MEN, produced independently by Norman Krasna and Jerry Wald for RKO, is a masterpiece on every plane.  The visuals, conjuring up the very essence of what Larry McMurtry wrote about, are the result of outstanding camerawork by the legendary Lee Garmes.  In addition to the aforementioned scribes, uncredited screenplay doctoring was done by Alfred Hayes, Andrew Solt and producer Wald.  A continuing thread running through the scenario is champion riding equated with sex, duly discussed in the adult verbal exchanges wherein Mitchum (and others) compare women to horses:  “[It’s] like dancing with a gal only you let him lead,” McCloud tells Merritt. “Some things you just do for the buzz.”

The music, touching, tough and, when called for, branded with loud braggadocio, remains one of Roy Webb’s best scores.  It is hands-down the best of the early 1950s-western sidebar genre of rodeo movies, that encompassed Budd Boetticher’s Broncho Buster and Richard Fleischer’s Arena.

The supporting cast, too, is exceptional with Arthur Hunnicutt as a punchy rodeo veteran a standout (“…a bronc shook his brains loose”).  His proud monologue on how he beat having his leg amputated is sardonic, head-shaking stuff.  Other cast members, comprised of ace movie folk, stuntmen and actual rodeo denizens, include Frank Faylen, Walter Coy, Lane Chandler, Jimmie Dodd (yeah, that one), Chuck Roberson, Glenn Strange, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Bray, Sheb Wooley and Mitchum’s bro, John.

I loved this movie from the first time I saw it on TV in the 1960s.  Admittedly, I initially had a problem with the casting of Kennedy and Hayward as the young kid and his wife.  These were hardly spring chickens, but, upon subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate the honesty behind Ray’s and RKO’s decision.  Ranching was/is a brutal existence.  While I may have opted for perhaps Audie Murphy and Janet Leigh, I soon understood the logic of the Kennedy/Hayward pairing.  This life aged folks – and quick.  It’s why dudes like Mitchum’s character went for the glitzy alternative.  If ever I need further proof, I found it in the 1970s – after seeing a photograph of ranch workers, whose average age hovered around 23; they all looked they were in their mid-fifties.

THE LUSTY MEN is to western-riding horse lovers what Forbidden Planet is to sci-fi addicts.  The rusted couplet, “There never been a [horse] that couldn’t be rode, there never was a cowboy who couldn’t be throwed,” uttered in various evocations throughout the narrative’s proceedings, is nothing less than a mantra to equine owners, who can and do often quote it verbatim.

When I worked with Nicholas Ray in the 1970s (as an assistant editor on You Can’t Go Home Again), I eagerly awaited opportunities to talk cinema with the man, who, even then, I considered one of the greatest directors of all-time.  I was disappointed by his reluctance to humor me; well, at least, at first.  Finally, one late afternoon, he cut me off and snapped, “Okay, what’s your favorite movie of mine – and don’t say Rebel without a Cause!”  Kinda funny, as it was obvious then that many movie fanatics my age would probably thought that was the only pic the substance-abusing overaged teenager had ever made.  Remember, too, that this was the 1970s, and many Ray movies weren’t available for screening.  Nick was surprised at my response; I told him that while I did like Rebel, my faves (at the moment) volleyed between On Dangerous Ground and THE LUSTY MEN, with the victor probably being the latter.  This proved to be the ice-breaker, and Ray opened up afterward, telling me that Mitchum was one of the three actors whom he truly considered a friend, the other two being Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden.

Indeed, Mitchum was partial to directors who put deep thought behind their decisions, artists whose footage ignited creativity (specific angles/moving camera/radical editing, rather than standard reportage long shot/medium shot/close-up) that cinematically underlined the plot.  This was the kinder, gentler Mitchum who responded to Ray and later Vincente Minnelli as if their words were gospel (unlike his bad-boy shenanigans when confronted with the Otto Premingers and Henry Hathaways).

Mitchum got on well with the cast and crew, and enjoyed being reteamed with Hayward, with whom he had worked the previous year on White Witch Doctor (he took to calling her “Big Red”).  Mitchum also bookmarked the contributions of Robert Parrish, who briefly took over directorial chores when Ray fell ill (Parrish would later helm the classic Wonderful Country, his greatest work).

The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE LUSTY MEN looks pretty good, brandishing a crisp, black-and-white 35mm transfer.  While some of the transitions and, understandably, rodeo stock footage exhibit slight grain, it’s a minor carp.  The mono audio is appropriately loud and boisterous.

Exciting, touching, rough, brimming with equal doses of gallows humor and pathos, THE LUSTY MEN is a testament to fantastic picture-making.  It’s a crowning achievement for Mitchum, Ray, RKO and 1950s Hollywood.  It’s one beautiful movie.

THE LUSTY MEN.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio.  The Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000190727.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

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