[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
When one watches the rodeo, however, it's easy to forgive Wes (Arthur Kennedy) for wanting not only to get the needed capital to buy his dream ranch but to gain notoriety. Not even the injured has-been, Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), can stay away from the scene that so quickly forgot him. Made well before the modern obsession with fame, The Lusty Men depicts with alarming prescience the all-consuming nature of celebrity of any level and its inexorable pull on those who are nobodies without it. When fame grabs a hold of a person, even the sights of the maimed and killed fail to sober a person up to reality.
Ray visualizes this pull from the start: that parade makes the entrance of what is just a festival attraction out to be a V-E Day-like extravaganza, and crowds pack the bleachers of the rodeo, cheering and moaning with each outcome. An announcer sells the danger of bull riding, saying that the breed they use is the only one to charge with its eyes open as Ray cuts to a close-up of an unblinking bull as Jeff prepares to mount it. His brief run ends in serious injury, and suddenly the tone shifts. After the satisfied crowd mills out of the place, Ray returns to Jeff, who knows his rodeo days are done. Ray shoots Mitchum at one sympathetically and without mercy. For the rest of the film, he never shies away from pointing out that Jeff and the men like him are victims of their own foolish pride, but he cannot bring himself to condemn these poor, deluded souls.
You know you're in for a well-shot movie when the director and cinematographer have enough confidence to place a great shot like Jeff walking out of the rodeo after everyone else has left. Mitchum limps through this vast, trampled field with only the howl of wind as his soundtrack. As he stiffly hobbles across the screen, trash tumbles around him; eventually a gust sends dirt and dust into the air around Jeff, pushing him out the exit with the rest of the refuse. It's perhaps the most morose image in Ray's filmography, and it's only the start of the film's descent into loneliness.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff hobbles his way to his childhood home. His parents long since dead, Jeff merely wants to visit and see if some of his old possessions are still there. But the ranch is pathetic, a one-story relative to the mis-constructed monstrosity of Buster Keaton's One Week. Considering that the house looks as if the huff and puff of a wolf will send it collapsing into splinters, Jeff's decision to crawl under the foundation to look for trinkets he hid there as a child constitutes as big an act of bravery as his career of riding pissed-off livestock. But the childhood objects he pulls from a hidden nook, a toy gun and a can containing two nickels, are innocent but bitter to the point of heartbreak. The man who was once a rich star now has only 10 cents and a gag pistol to tie him to any time or place. Even when the house's current owner, an old man named Jeremiah, realizes Jeff's identity and warmly welcomes him, the rodeo king feels like a stranger in his own stomping grounds, a walking anachronism who has returned like Rip Van Winkle to a home that passed into time while he was away.
But if you think Jeff is sad, just take a gander at the Merrits, a married couple so poor and hopeful that the decrepit time bomb of rotting timber that is the old McCloud place is their dream home, and Wes (Arthur Kennedy) saves up his wretched wages as a farmhand to buy the place from Jeremiah. Jeff, left penniless by reckless living, must also take a low-paying job for Wes' boss, but the young man can hardly believe his luck, and soon he talks Jeff into training him to be a rodeo rider. Wes needs the money to secure that home before he's Jeremiah's age, and Jeff will clearly take any excuse to be around the rodeo again, drawn to it despite its rejection of him.
Wes proves a natural, and soon Ray brings his camera back into the ring, jolting the picture with the electrifying energy of the rodeo scenes but now filtering them through the awareness of consequences for such a life. But neither Jeff's presence nor the stern worry of Wes's wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), can stop the foolish young lad from entering and signing up for more dangerous (and profitable) events. Louise makes not-without-merit accusations of Jeff merely latching onto Wes as a way to get back to the rodeo and to collect free money as Wes' partner, but she cannot understand the allure, at least not far enough from the action to objectively gauge its results. The title calls these men lusty, but it is not referring to base desires despite the presence of carnal hunger in both. Rather, they lust for recognition, for the relative glory of a few hundred adoring fans with nothing better to do when the rodeo comes to town. But even that sliver of fame changes a man, makes him into something more than his neighbor, and one does not revert to a nobody without a fight.
The Lusty Men could easily have felt like a sermonizing picture, but Ray's point is not the poisonous traits of fame but the complexities of American life and values when put into practice. When he shows a former rider lift up his pants leg to reveal a puttied gam that looks as if a shark got a hold of it, Ray lays bare the grim results of this line of work but also the high price one pays to feel like an individual in a rigid, conformist society. And yet, the success of the rodeo is itself dependent upon the very rigidity it seeks to undermine. The crowds who amass in the bleachers are faceless and meaningless as individuals, but as an adoring crowd they validate the rodeo riders and make them feel like individualists and heroes. Behind the scenes, many wives feel like Louise, supportive of their husbands but desperate to see them get out of the game before being maimed, or worse. Some, though, like Ginny, clearly get off on the danger; with a world-devouring smile on her face, she says all she does is scream when her husband rides. In the heat of the moment, the rest of the wives tend to feel this way too; even Louise, wracked as she is with concern, watches with suspense, admiration and more than a little arousal when her husband handles his rides with effortless ability. But even then, she does not lose all reason, but her husband has; not even the sight of a fellow rider gored to death can dissuade him, and it becomes increasingly clear that Wes won't stop until he's been impaled or trampled too.
These interlocking strands make for a repellent subversion of the values of the Western, of which the film most assuredly is not. It is, however, a film indirectly about Westerns, in that the rodeo exists to perpetuate commercial invocations of the West as a place of rough riders and rugged iconography. As such, its view of the rodeo as a place of exploitation and an insatiable hunger for fame makes for nearly as strong a commentary on the genre as Johnny Guitar, that acid-soaked gender bend. But if Johnny Guitar is a psychosexual torrent, The Lusty Men is a somber view of men driven to kill themselves to live up to the standards that Ray's first proper Western would set on fire. Viewed today, the film's thematic thrust resembles as much a Martin Scorsese film as Nick Ray feature, that of a protagonist who continues to punish himself for a romanticized goal that will, regardless of his immediate success, eventually be denied him and that he knows deep down will be denied him.
Not all is despair, however. Mitchum's booming canyon of a voice has always carried a tincture of dry humor. As tensions rise between Jeff and an egotistical Wes, a brief exchange of insults ends with Jeff decking Wes, commenting, as he used to admiringly of Wes' riding ability, "He bounce real good." When a fame-lured Wes heads to a party thrown by the local jezebel, Jeff finds himself trapped in a trailer with a fuming Louise who rants about the situation in the rising hiss of a boiling kettle. Jeff, wanting to avoid the situation entirely, continues to speak about dinner in a hopeless attempt to ward off the coming explosion. As Mitchum kneels before the oven to take out a dish, he pauses, as if contemplating shoving his head in there to take the easy way out of this conversation. At last, he stops playing dumb and responds to Louise's talk about how wild and tempting the rival woman is with a considered but curt "Yeah," as if he's been confronted with a truth he cannot deny.
Yet the funniest joke of all is also the key to the film's success. This is, like nearly all Ray films in some capacity, a melodrama, yet in the middle of its expressive moods and textures is Mitchum, that rock of deliberate, natural action; as if annoyed by the largeness of the emotions around him, Jeff constantly warns against "grandstanding," but he's in the wrong profession and the wrong movie. Even with Mitchum's sonorous baritone and stony presence propelling him, Jeff still grandstands as a rodeo rider, and he even allows himself to be goaded back into the game by Wes. But even as he prepares for his final, ill-judged ride, Jeff sidesteps big gestures for a wordless exchange between a resigned, perversely happy old star and the egomaniac who briefly remembers the man who inspired him. Wes' smile, a dawning remembrance of lost admiration and concern for his hero's well-being, is the breakthrough he needs to come to his senses, an awakening sealed by the wretched martyrdom of Jeff's last bull ride.
The film ends with a human renunciation of this defeating life, but as one man casts aside the profession, another rises to take his place, restarting the cycle and even implanting the vague suggestion that the man who quit may not sit back and allow another to supplant his pop-culture memory. After the false cheeriness of the final shots of Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar, this may be the most subconsciously unsettling of Ray's ending moments.