Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 25 August 2008
Source TCM broadcast
Categories The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray
The Lusty Men is not, as Nicholas Ray will be the first to tell us, a Western. It sounds a bit like one, thanks to Roy Webb’s somewhat corny (or oatie?) score, but the content of the film — it is the most soap-operatic of horse operas — easily belies this impression. There are cowboys, but no outlaws; there is horseriding, but no gunfighting; there are ample shots of a voluptuous, rugged landscape whereupon the lonely passions of men collide, but there is no valor on this old, dusty trail. This trail now leads a man, not to the fulfillment of an American ideal of individuality, but to his proper home, what Susan Hayward later calls “a decent, steady life.” And in place of a wayward, untamed frontier, there is a network of highways and trailer parks whose connection to the Old West — and thus to that most American of movie genres — is maintained only through another ritualized form of mass entertainment: the rodeo.
At the outset of The Lusty Men, after a brief prologue of Western regalia and a glimpse of “The Wildest Show on Earth,” we find Robert Mitchum in much the same position as we find John Wayne at the end of Ford’s The Searchers, famously closed out of the domestic space along with the blustery wilderness around him. Here, as has-been rodeo legend Jeff MacLeod, Mitchum limps through a deserted rodeo arena, kit-bag on his shoulder, wounded from his last bullride. Tumbleweeds blowing around him, he hitches a ride on a cargo truck to his old family ranch in Texas. Finding the ranch decrepit and seemingly deserted, MacLeod, with an air of familiarity, crawls underneath it to a special hiding place where he finds an old tobacco tin secreted away in the crawlspace. He ponders its contents: an old rodeo program, a toy six-shooter, a pair of nickels. At one point, these were treasures to him, the whole world, and now they are virtually worthless.
In Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders tells Ray that this scene “is more about coming home than anything I’ve seen.” (Earlier, in his little-seen masterpiece, Kings of the Road, the German director recreated the scene almost precisely and to great effect.) Indeed, for Ray, the notions of home - of homecoming and of homemaking - are what The Lusty Men is about:
This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own. That was the great American search at the time this film was made. I had gone through all the social rolls in Washington that asked for that kind of data — “What is your principal drive in life?” — and over 90 per cent was, “To own a house of my own.” And that’s what is was all about.1
This is an enduring theme of Ray’s work: the definition and re-definition of home. In Rebel Without a Cause, a nuclear family of teenagers creates an ad hoc home in an abandoned mansion; in The Savage Innocents, the very way of life of Anthony Quinn the Eskimo is contingent upon the building and rebuilding of igloo homes in which his family may take shelter. But for Jeff MacLeod, this scene of return recalls a later Ray film title: We Can’t Go Home Again. Although he returns to his family ranch to find “something I thought I’d lost,” all he finds is its new owner, a reclusive old bachelor named Jeremiah, who likens the place to a “graveyard.” (“I was born in this room,” Jeff says, to which Jeremiah replies: “T’ain’t much to brag about.”) The specter of the Great Depression, that great home-wrecker whose distant memory is so often felt in Ray’s films, appears here as a darker version of the Western migration suggested by the Old Frontier. This is MacLeod’s frontier-less prosperous and less heroic than that of the usual movie Western—and he is alone in it.
But Wes and Louise Merritt, however, are altogether different kinds of Americans. Wes is a local ranch-hand and Louise, the daughter of a Steinbeckian family of “fruit-pickers” and drifters, is his wife and homemaker-in-the-making. They are the aspirant homeowners of which Ray speaks, the average lower middle class American, struggling to save enough to have a ranch to call their own. In this case, their dream home is Jeremiah’s ranch, the old MacLeod place, and this coincidence brings MacLeod and the Merritts together. Wes, it seems, is an amateur rodeo cowboy, having made a little money in the some of the small competition, steer-roping and the like. Recognizing the legendary MacLeod, Wes secures him a job on his ranch—on the condition that he teach him the skills necessary to win the down-payment on a new home through bronc- and bull-riding.
Much to everyone’s surprise—and especially to Louise’s dismay—Wes proves to be a phenomenon, and soon the plans they had made for owning a home and leading the “decent, steady life” of the American middle class become secondary to life on the rodeo circuit. This is MacLeod’s world, not without warmth and love, but a constant gamble. We are continually reminded, by the example of Jeff, of his friend Rusty (who has “about the most busted leg in the world”), and of others, that the stakes of the rodeo life are high: on the one hand, the chance of glory, fame, fortune, women, and the ultimate rush of machismo; on the other, paralysis, destitution, and death2. These are the passions that both drive these characters together and tear them apart—Wes is drawn to the rodeo life, Louise to the domestic life, and Jeff, caught between them, starts to long for all those things Wes seems so ready to renounce, including Louise.
In spite of this ostensible love triangle, which only materializes, forcefully but almost parenthetically, about three-quarters through the film, The Lusty Men is in many ways a quintessential male melodrama. Just as in Rebel Without a Cause, the woman’s relation to each man is secondary to the partnership between the two men, and the excesses of the rodeo spectacle enact much of the drama that remains tacit between them. In portraying this, Ray’s style is naturalistic and largely restrained, even when at its most studio-bound—he is suggestive of the underlying problems brewing without alighting on any one character long enough to wholly identify or understand them. So even though the sexual lust in The Lusty Men isn’t quite as prevalent as its rather brazen title might have you believe, the film perhaps says more about lusts of all kinds than a good many others. It’s a film not so much about the torridness of sexual passion, romantic longing, greed, ambition, fame-seeking as about the realities of human desire—our dreams and our disappointments.
Or, indeed, about the interchangeability of them. The desire for a life of “steak for dinner, money in the bank” that so appeals to Wes and for Louise’s desire for “a decent, steady life” are just two dreams among many: one, the dying ideal of the Old West; the other, the new standard of post-War America. And each of the characters in The Lusty Men—Jeff, Louise, and Wes—is ultimately, somewhat tragically, found to be appropriate to one or the other of these dreams. Masculine independence and domestic marital partnership do not mix—Louise characterizes the one as suicidal, macho bullshit; and Wes describes the other as motherly emasculation. The mobile home Wes buys to travel the circuit is at best a hotel, a temporary accommodation for the Merritts’ shared life and dream. And once the couple walk beneath the rodeo arena’s large EXIT sign toward a parking lot full of suburban sedans, it is Jeff, the cowboy figure, who is once again shut out of the domestic, marital unit. As Ray states, “They had all lived up to what they were supposed to live up to,” there is an understanding amongst the characters—tacitly between he and Wes, tearfully between he and Louise—that MacLeod cannot go home again.
In A Lonely Place1950
They Live By Night1948
A Woman’s Secret1949
Knock on Any Door1949
Born to Be Bad1950
On Dangerous Ground1952
The Lusty Men1952
High Green Wall1954
Rebel Without a Cause1955
Bigger Than Life1956
The True Story of Jesse James1957
King of Kings1961
55 Days at Peking1963
We Can’t Go Home Again1973-1976
Lightning Over Water1980