Watching with Warner: THE LUSTY MEN (1952)

Ain’t a bronc that can’t be rode, ain’t a cowboy that can’t be throwed

I am not a fan of westerns, I’ve said this before.  So when I first heard about Nicholas Ray’s film THE LUSTY MEN on a Warner Archive podcast, I didn’t pay much attention.  But as time went on I heard this film mentioned again and again, and with more and more enthusiasm.  Finally, during the year-end wrap up podcast the hosts of the Warner Archive mentioned it again as one of the overlooked gems of the year.  That did it.  I decided that I needed to see what the fuss was all about but I wasn’t convinced that this would be my kind of movie, after all how interesting could a movie about rodeo cowboys really be?  Holy cow (no pun intended) was I in for a surprise!

Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is a former rodeo star, having recently retired from the circuit after being injured by a wild bull during his last show.  Having no real home of his own, having spent the last eighteen years leading a nomadic lifestyle while following rodeos, Jeff returns to his childhood home in Texas.  While searching the crawl space under the house for childhood souvenirs, Jeff is discovered by the home’s current occupant.  Surprised, having assumed that the home was empty, Jeff introduces himself to the sixty-two year old Jeremiah Watrus (Burt Mustin) and the two sit down to a cup of coffee.  While trading memories and life theories, Jeff and Jeremiah are interrupted by the arrival of a local cowhand and his wife.  According to Jeremiah, the two come out to see him quite often as they are interested in buying the property.  Jeremiah won’t sell the house for less than $5000 and until the young couple has the money they content themselves by coming to see the house and talk about changes they will make when it is finally theirs.  Jeremiah invites Jeff to stay and watch the fun but Jeff demurs, and bidding Jeremiah good-bye sets off down the road.  The cowhand, Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), recognizes Jeff from his days at the rodeo and strikes up a conversation which leads to inviting Jeff home for dinner.  After dropping Wes’ wife Louise (Susan Hayward) back at their home, Jeff and Wes go to see the rancher that Wes works for.  After some convincing Jeff is offered a job to work alongside Wes as a cowhand.

That night, after a meal of lamb chops, Wes asks Jeff about his days on the rodeo circuit.  Jeff talks about the bulls, bucks, women, and quick money.  Louise is unimpressed and tells Jeff so.  A former waitress, Louise has little patience for men who are after a fast buck and who can lose that money as soon as they get it.  She proudly tells Jeff that she and Wes have saved $1100 towards the purchase of Jeremiah’s place.  The next day Wes tells Jeff about his plans to enter the rodeo circuit starting in San Angelo, Texas.  He has taken $125 from the savings Louise mentioned for an entry fee and he wants Jeff to help train him.  Jeff advises Wes to forget the rodeo and stick with Louise and her lamb chops, to earn his money in a reliable and sensible way.  But Wes insists and Jeff finally agrees to show him the ropes.  Later that night, Louise discovers the missing money and questions Wes.  He tells her his plans and she angrily tells him that she had many men pursuing her but chose Wes because they each wanted a steady, honest life together.  Wes, just as angrily, insists that he doesn’t want to wait for years to finally have the money to buy their own place, or their own herd of cattle and that he needs to do this to get what he wants from life.  Louise emphasizes the danger of the sport but Wes won’t hear any more and goes with Jeff to compete.

With Jeff’s help, Wes is a great success at his first rodeo and wins $410.  Flush with his winnings, Wes returns to Louise and tells her that he has quit his job as a cowhand and has decided to travel the rodeo circuit instead.  Jeff will accompany him as his coach and as such will get half his winnings.  Louise confronts Jeff about this scheme, convinced that Jeff is just using Wes as a ticket to some quick cash.  Jeff points out to Louise that she latched on to Wes too in order to get what she wanted and that he, Jeff, is just helping Wes get what he wants.  Louise tells Jeff that growing up she never had a real home, or money, or security.  When she met Wes, he wanted to give her the life that she longed for and she married him for that.  So, even though she doesn’t agree with his plan as his wife she will go with Wes even if that means going on the rodeo circuit.  The three set out the next day and arrive at the rodeo camp in Tucson that night.  Upon their arrival, Jeff stops a fight that has broken out between several rodeo cowboys.  The instigator is Buster Burgess (Walter Coy) whose recent goring by a bull has left him scarred, both mentally and physically.  Jeff also reconnects with his old friend Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) and Booker’s teenage daughter Rusty (Carol Nugent).  The next day Louise makes friends with Buster’s wife, Grace (Lorna Thayer), and Rosemary (Maria Hart), a trick rider and Jeff’s old flame.  Rosemary warns Louise about Jeff’s womanizing ways before taking her leave to let Louise use her shower.  Jeff appears and begins to flirt with Louise but he is quickly shot down.

At the rodeo Wes has entered all five events, including bull riding which he has never done before.  After performing well in all other events, Wes prepares to ride a bull named Yo-yo much to the shock of Jeff and Louise.  However, Wes stuns everyone by riding the bull and winning the event.  That night Wes collects his winnings and is invited to join in a rodeo sponsored party, where he attracts the attentions of a young woman named Babs.  Louise quickly marks her territory and sends Babs scurrying with a swift kick to the rear end.  In the middle of the party, Grace appears having left the rodeo to tend to Buster who was injured during that day’s events.  She angrily scolds all the guests for living such a careless and dangerous life, and the next day tells Louise that she and Buster are quitting the rodeo.  Wes buys their trailer and over the next few months travels the rodeo circuit with Louise and Jeff, winning events and large amounts of money.

When the group reaches the Annual Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, Louise tells Jeff that Jeremiah has agreed to sell his house for $4100 and they now have enough saved to buy their house.  Jeff congratulates her, and they two sit down to wait for Wes to return for a pot roast dinner.  However, Wes is not as thrilled by Louise’s news and tells her that he has no desire to give up the rodeo circuit to go back to their old life.  Angry, Wes storms off to a party at Babs’ apartment leaving Louise and Jeff alone.  Jeff advises letting Wes blow off steam and talking to him again in the morning, but Louise is tired of being the supportive wife and decides to go to the party and confront Wes.  Wearing her most alluring dress, Louise heads off with an admiring Jeff in tow.  When they arrive, Wes is drunk and wearing Babs’ lipstick.  Louise brawls with Babs and is kicked out of the party, taking Jeff with her.  Out in the hall Jeff confesses to Louise that he has been in love with her from the very start and offers her a way out of life with Wes.  Louise gently refuses him, citing her continued love for her husband, and begs Jeff to do what he can to save Wes and get him out of rodeo.  Jeff requests a kiss, for all the times he won’t be able to, and it is while they are kissing that Wes discovers them.  Wes insults Jeff, calling him yellow and weak for not competing, and Jeff slugs him.  Asking Louise if he is sure of her decision, Jeff exits and isn’t seen again until the next morning.  Rusty bursts into Louise’s trailer, where Louise is packing to leave Wes, and tells her that Jeff has surprised everyone by entering all the events.  Louise, realizing what Jeff is doing, rushes to the arena with Rusty.

This was one of Robert Mitchum’s favorite films and it is easy to see why.  His performance as Jeff is believable and relatable, in spite of Jeff’s background as a rodeo cowboy.  Through his acting, we can see Jeff as a man who ran away to the rodeo to find something that was missing inside himself.  The feeling that he got from riding bucks and broncs filled the void inside, left behind by not having anyone to rely on.  It is in Louise that he finally finds that feeling again, the possibility of loving her and having a home/life with her giving him the chance to find peace and happiness without needing to rodeo.  And when she refuses him, he accepts it and what it means for his life.  Robert Mitchum is an actor who doesn’t need to do much in order to make an impact, and it is in the little moments and gestures that he gives us a complete picture of Jeff and his world.

Susan Hayward is not an actress that I have seen many times but she is just so good it is unreal.  Louise is a woman who married Wes, not because he was the most handsome, the richest, the smartest, and maybe not even the one she loved the most, but because he was the one who wanted to give her the home and security she wanted so badly.  She equates this security with love, and so when Wes wants to give up their dreams of a home for such a risky and dangerous venture it is almost as if he is rejecting her love and their life together.  She eventually comes to realize that she loves Wes, in spite of everything, and must make a decision to either fight to save their marriage or leave him to his desires.  Susan Hayward gives a performance that is strong, tough, and still sympathetic.  Louise supports Wes in spite of her misgivings and you can see this struggle, especially when Louise is getting to know the other rodeo wives.  She wants to be there for Wes, but can’t understand the total commitment of some of the other wives.

Arthur Kennedy’s Wes Merritt is a character that could easily be dismissed as a selfish and immature man.  And yes, there is an element of selfishness to him.  But the reasons why Wes is doing what he wants, the reasons why he is entering the rodeo events, are more complex than just because he wants to or because he wants to prove people wrong.  Wes is a man who wants to take a chance to get what he wants because he doesn’t want to rely on other people.  He wants to finally get something of his own in this world.  He wants to be a man.  Maybe the way that he goes about it is selfish and immature, but his reasons are deeper than that.

Some people have complained about the ending, calling it weak, poorly done, or just saying it didn’t ring true.  I could not disagree more.  This is the ending that was always coming.  This is the ending that is truest to the characters and their intentions.  It is foreshadowed in the name of the horse Jeff rides.  It is the ending that was set in motion the moment that Jeff loved Louise and she asked him to save Wes.  I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil anything, but once you watch this amazing film send me an email and let me know if you agree.  This is a film that needs to be seen and I am so glad that I had the chance to.