The Lusty Men (1952) *** ½
Directed by: Nicholas Ray.
Written by: David Dortort & Horace McCoy based on the book by Claude Stanush.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Jeff McCloud), Susan Hayward (Louise Merritt), 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).
Mitchum is Jeff McCloud who after his injury returns to his rundown childhood home in Texas – it was rundown when he left it 20 years before, and its still rundown now. He meets a nice young couple Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward) who dream of buying his childhood home and setting up a ranch there– but have nowhere near the $5,000 needed to do so. Wes works as a cattle hand at a nearby ranch, and since he recognizes Jeff from his rodeo days, he offers to help get him a job at the same ranch. Wes has ulterior motives however – he idolizes Jeff and wants him to help him become a star on the rodeo. If Jeff will help, Wes will give him 50% of whatever he wins. Much to the chagrin in Louise, Jeff accepts – and soon Wes is a star on the rodeo, and suddenly to him life on that ranch doesn’t seem all that great. He starts drinking, partying, chasing women and getting a big head. Meanwhile, Jeff is starting to see what he missed out all those years by growing closer to Louise.
Nicholas Ray often made films about outsiders – about people who chose to take chances and live a life where freedom meant more to them than responsibility. The Lusty Men is in many ways similar to those other films – including such films as Rebel without a Cause (1955), In a Lonely Place (1950) and my personal favorite Bigger Than Life (1956). And yet, in some ways, it is actually quite different. It’s the same because both Jeff and Wes have to make the same decision Ray characters always make – to either be the outsider, or be tied down to family. Most of the time, Ray seemingly came down on the side of being the outsider – that playing it safe was the same as death. In The Lusty Men, he seems to be saying just the opposite. The movie ends with Jeff embracing his outsider status, and being punished as a result, whereas Wes gets to go back and live the life he dreamed about all along – and simply lost his way for a while on the rodeo. Perhaps that’s why to me, The Lusty Men, while an excellent film, doesn’t quite live up to the best of Ray’s work – because the ending feels a little forced and unnatural to me. Throughout the movie there are other such moments – the three leads are all great in their roles, but the supporting cast of largely stock characters feel hollow to me. But it was the ending I was disappointed in – it didn’t feel to me that Ray truly felt his ending.
I first heard of The Lusty Men a while back when I was talking to a friend about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) a film I had loved, and he was lukewarm on. He suggested I see The Lusty Men, because it was similar, but to his mind better. The two films are in many ways similar – they are both about broken down former stars in their field whose bodies have betrayed them, but have no other real skills they can fall back on – and probably wouldn’t want to even if they did. I still think The Wrestler is a better film – I remember watching that film at TIFF for the first time, and having to walk out of the theater in tears at the end of the film. The Lusty Men didn’t hit me the same way – and it goes back to what I said before. I think Aronofsky felt the ending to The Wrestler – it is after all similar to how he ended Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan. Yet I think if Ray had his way, The Lusty Men would have ended differently. Sometimes the ending makes all the difference.