It was hard for me to gin up any enthusiasm for The Lusty Men (1952), even though it’s the highest-ranked Robert Mitchum movie I haven’t seen, according to Letterboxd users. First, it’s got one of the worst titles I’ve come across. The connotation of “lusty” was less specific in the 1950s than how it is used presently — meaning, more generally, a hunger for visceral glory — but it still reeks of inarticulate paperback machismo. Then there’s the setting: the professional rodeo circuit. For whatever reason, rodeos hold no appeal for me. Maybe it’s because my own urban life is so far removed from ranching culture; and/or maybe because the one time I attended a rodeo, around age 9, it was too hot, it was dirty and smelly, and the guy behind me spilled his beer on my back. These factors outweighed my general appreciation for Mitchum as a magnetic screen presence and director Nicholas Ray’s lurid melodramatic flair. As I should have expected, the Mitchum-Ray combination is a winner, and The Lusty Men is a solid drama that explores interesting psychological nooks within the rodeo environment.
Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a broke and broken has-been former rodeo champion ready to trade the regular physical abuse of the sport for a simple life as an aging ranch hand. He is quickly lured back into the circuit, however, when Wes (Arthur Kennedy), a fellow hand who dreams of rodeo thrills and riches, asks Jeff to mentor him. Wes’ wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), reluctantly acquiesces, on the condition that Wes retires once they have saved up enough money to purchase a farm of their own. But, each small taste of success makes the eager (some might say, “lusty”) Wes less and less likely to honor such an early exit.
The Lusty Men lays out its promise in the first few minutes, with close-ups of Mitchum carefully mounting a real bull — whose nostrils are practically smearing the lens — followed by some impressive authentic rodeo action, and then closing the opening sequence with a classically rueful Ray shot of a limping Mitchum walking alone across the shadowed, desolate stadium ground long after the show has ended. What follows is a healthy mix of introspective domestic melodrama and the anthropology of the professional traveling cowboy, especially where it concerns the wives, groupies, and cowgirls who attempt to negotiate roles for themselves within a culture that is mostly focused on the self-centered exploits of ruggedly competitive and indulgent men. Ray pointedly explores the romanticized self-abuse of performative masculinity and its vulnerability to vice, as well as the destructive tension between this kind of male idealism and mid-century female domestic practicality.
Although Mitchum’s Jeff is the primary focus of The Lusty Men, it’s Hayward who receives top billing and her Louise is arguably the more compelling character. She gives a ballsy performance in the usually thankless role of the conflicted wife, attacking a treacherous spectrum of insecurity and determination with integrity, selling equally lines like “Men! I’d like to fry ‘em all in deep fat!” and “That’s a wife’s profession: forgiving her husband.” Hayward is strong enough to justify the weakest link in The Lusty Men, which is Jeff’s romantic fixation on Louise as an ideal that he fantasizes might have saved his foregone career. While Wes’ one-dimensional greed for glory satisfies as a trope, this half-explored notion of mutual attraction between Hayward and Mitchum comes in too late to work and yet swallows nearly the entire climax. It’s not surprising to see that The Lusty Men has five credited screenwriters, and learn that the script (inspired by a 1946 LIFE magazine article) was written on-the-fly, as this final change of narrative and the resulting pat ending feel out-of-step with the more complex and less formulaic build-up.
Mitchum is given ample opportunity to show off his typically unsettling combination of single-minded toughness and wounded vulnerability, and underlines it with aching loneliness. Kennedy is also appealing in his less complicated role as the unwitting heel to Ray’s pervading sense of doom. Eleanor Todd has a brief eye-catching role as a mischievous groupie, and Arthur Hunnicut adds some welcome folksy flavor. Robert Parrish is sometimes listed as a co-director, even though he appears to have left the project during development.