I first saw this film on TV over 45 years ago and I’ve been looking for another screening ever since. I’m not sure why it has been so hard to see with a DVD finally appearing in the US only a few years ago. Thanks to Nick Lacey, who spotted it in TV listings, I finally found it on ‘5 Action’. What I remembered about it was the opening to the film which mirrors elements of the opening of Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972). Both are rodeo pictures with opening sequences featuring a one-time rodeo champion arriving in his home town after another failure and injury and seeking out the house where he grew up. In this case the rodeo champ is Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum). In Peckinpah’s film it’s Steve McQueen. From here on in, both films become melodramas but with rather different narratives. The Lusty Men, directed by Nick Ray with a script by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a story suggested by Claude Stanush, is perhaps the more ‘action-orientated’ of the two films and includes a lot of rodeo action, shot around the West in just three types of location – trailer camps, rodeos and bar-rooms.

Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) finds his childhood treasures beneath his old house

The story outline is quite simple. McCloud runs into a couple who are thinking of buying his old house. Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) invites McCloud back to the couple’s rented place after realising that Jeff is a famous rodeo rider. Louise Merritt is less impressed, worried that Wes will be further encouraged to pursue his own dreams of rodeo-riding. She wants to settle down and save money so they can buy their own house, but Wes insists that if Jeff literally ‘taught him the ropes’ and advised him, he too could be a rodeo champ. Wes gives up his job and sets off with Jeff on the rodeo circuit, agreeing to give Jeff half his winnings. Louise reluctantly agrees to go along and things go well at first, then some of the realities of the rodeo life kick in . . . There are plenty of holes in the narrative but Nick Ray knew all about melodrama and would later make three interesting Westerns. The film also has three strong selling points – the three excellent leads, the cinematography of Lee Garmes and the ‘real’ rodeo footage carefully cut into the staged scenes by editor Ralph Dawson.

Jeff and Wes (Arthur Kennedy)

The presentation of the narrative suggests that Mitchum is the older man and Kennedy and Hayward are a younger couple. This distinction is important and as at least one of the commentaries I read makes the point that Mitchum is the ageing man, unable to give up the rodeo life, even though he knows that his days are numbered. Kennedy and Hayward initially wanted to buy a house. Here are is the opposition between the the ‘Twilight Western’ and its central cowboy character out of place in modern America and the young couple doing what most young couples in 1952, the first year of Eisenhower’s presidency, wanted to do most of all. The conflict then begins when Wes gets the cowboy bug and Jeff begins to wonder about settling down with a woman like Louise. Everything works very well, but there is one interesting facet of this scenario – Kennedy was actually three years older than Mitchum and Hayward. In Hollywood terms though, Hayward had been first out of the gate with significant roles by the early 1940s and a lead role by 1946. Mitchum was a little behind with a history of B Westerns and uncredited roles before starting to create a name for himself by 1945 and making it to the lead in Out of the Past in 1947. Kennedy had a similar career path to Mitchum in his early career (though he was starting later). In fact he had a stage career start with the Group Theatre and then Classical Rep between 1937-1939. This probably stood him in good stead with Nick Ray but his later film career, which often centred on Westerns in the 1950s tended to see him second or third-billed. Kennedy was a fine actor and he could play younger, just as Mitchum with a slight paunch and a limp could become older.

Presumably a publicity still: Louise (Susan Hayward) with Jeff.

I was interested to read a review of the film by Jeff Arnold on his ‘Western’ blog. He argues that Kennedy and Hayward are ‘too Eastern’ to be believable as Texans. He also suggests that Ida Lupino would have been good in the role taken by Hayward, despite being London-born. (Lupino had appeared as the lead of two Warner Bros. pictures featuring Kennedy as a supporting actor, High Sierra, 1941 and Devotion, 1946) I’m certainly not going to disagree with that suggestion but I’m not down on Susan Hayward either. She had worked on Jacques Tourneur’s wonderful Canyon Passage (1946) and as I’ve pointed out, Kennedy appeared in 1940s Westerns, just like Mitchum (who was also born in New England).The question here is, do accents matter much more in a ‘contemporary Western’ than in a classic Western set in the 19th century. Arguably they do since the characters are less likely to be recent migrants. Having said that, one of the rodeo riders in the narrative is announced as from New York.

Susan Hayward as housewife Louise in the kitchen

The point here is that the narrative requires Susan Hayward to ‘look different’ and act differently. This is partly, I think, a function of her commercial role in the film. RKO ‘rented’ Hayward from Fox where she was contracted and she was only available for a few weeks. Her role was boosted and the RKO publicity team, presumably pressurised by Howard Hughes, presented the sensationalist title for a story that had much simpler working titles such as ‘Cowpoke’ and showed her in posters like the above with Mitchum and a cleavage. This is quite misleading. Most of the time Hayward is the Eisenhower housewife and dressed as such, standing out from the Western wives and the rodeo circuit girls (e.g. Eleanor Todd as ‘Babs’). The script for this picture was written and re-written and then often improvised. As a result, Louise is meant to be a former ‘hash slinger’ in a cheap eats place. That is scarcely believable later on in the narrative but Susan Hayward rises above the script. I’m not sure how she does it, but if she is in a scene, she dominates it for me.

From the final section: Louise puts on her glad rags to save Wes from the gold digger Babs (Eleanor Todd)

It’s interesting to watch scenes between the three leads. Mitchum ‘underacts’ in his ‘cool’ style. Kennedy works hard to impress as a younger man on the make. All three stars as well as the supporting players are excellent and a tribute to Nick Ray’s skills in working with them as well as their professionalism in giving him what he asked for. Fourth-billed is Arthur Hunnicutt as the older ex-rodeo rider Buddy Davis whose wrecked body is a warning to every one else. He and his daughter Rusty (Carol Nugent) lead a large supporting cast comprising the rodeo community who tour the scheduled stops.

Buddy (Arthur Hunnicutt) and Dusty (Carol Nugent) with Wes

1952 at RKO was a difficult time with Howard Hughes proving to be the worst kind of interfering studio boss. Nick Ray’s position at the studio was that of a frustrated artist trying to free himself from his contract. He’d gained some prestige in the eyes of Hughes by making Flying Leathernecks in 1951, a patriotic Second World War flying picture with John Wayne. Hughes loved the flying, the ideology and the fact that the film made money. How Ray and the second lead Robert Ryan (both leftists at a time when Hughes was a ‘red-baiter’) got through making that picture, heaven only knows, but it meant that Nick Ray became the ‘go-to’ director when things went wrong on other shoots. The Lusty Men was originally intended to be directed by Robert Parrish, chosen by the producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna whose production partnership was one of several working for RKO. Parrish had been an actor and a celebrated editor and he duly met the first two writers to work on the script, Claude Stanush and then David Dortort. But things didn’t progress and Parrish moved on, though he would return to shoot a few scenes when Ray was ill  later on. When Nick Ray took on the project he was starting from scratch because he immersed himself in research into the rodeo circuit. Mitchum was pleased to have him as director and eventually Horace McCoy would arrive as a new writer, bringing his sports experience. Even so, Ray was faced with the remnants of the original story and script and his own research plus what McCoy produced. It wasn’t the best way to get started and the script difficulties probably explain some of the inconsistencies. There was also the deadline for Hayward’s availability and McCoy left the production but returned later. Despite all of this it was possible for Ray to meld the melodrama involving the three leads with the almost documentary drama of rodeo meets with their detailed ‘procedural’ elements. The drawback of this melding was a film lasting 113 minutes, risking alienating either or both the audiences for the melodrama and the rodeo action.

For the Ray auteurists the film also fits as a study of a marginalised group and the relationship between two men with different perspectives. In commercial terms, RKO found themselves with three other rodeo pictures being produced at the same time, the best known being Bud Boetticher’s Bronco Buster (1952) from Universal, one from MGM (Arena, 1953) and one from Monogram (Rodeo, 1952). RKO’s picture flopped but gradually developed a following of critics, which makes its long unavailability surprising.

For me the film represents both another fascinating Nick Ray picture, despite the flaws, and an example of the ‘contemporary Western’ – one with links to the kind of Twilight Westerns that would become more common from the 1960s onwards. Ray had been involved in uncredited rescue work on Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952) (also with Mitchum) and he would go on to more uncredited work on Androcles and the Lion (1952) before escaping from RKO and directing one of his major films, Johnny Guitar in 1954 for Republic. The comments above about Ray at RKO are drawn from Bernard Eisenschitz’s book, Nicholas Ray, an American Journey (faber & faber, 1993 translation in English). I’m pleased to have found The Lusty Men at last, though I note the only DVDs on sale in the UK are European or US imports. I hope to return to the film and discuss it as a Western at a later date. In the meantime, here is a clip focusing on the Mitchum-Hayward relationship: