Written by Horace McCoy and David Dortort from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush, The Lusty Men is one of director Nicholas Ray’s three outstanding films; the others are In a Lonely Place (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954). (His vapid, sentimental Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, indulges the whining self-pity of its adolescent characters.). It is also the most substantial thing starring “the Brooklyn Bernhardt,” plainspoken Susan Hayward, who gives what may be her most electric and captivating performance.
Ray’s contemporary western follows frayed, rootless lives on the rodeo circuit. One of these belongs to Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum, at his weary best), who has been injured by the bull he was riding in “The Wildest Show on Earth.” Broke, his income now lost, he collects the two nickels he had hidden away underneath what had been his childhood home. There, he hooks up with the couple who are planning on moving in: Louise and Wes Merritt (Hayward, Arthur Kennedy). Wes, a cowhand and aspiring rodeo rider, remembers and idolizes Jeff. When Jeff reminisces, “[T]he year I was champ I made over $25,000,” Louise responds ruefully and philosophically: “Easy come, easy go.” Jeff helps train Wes on the sly. Louise would prefer that Wes not risk his bones on the rodeo circuit. But Wes becomes a success on the circuit, and greedy. Louise feels that Jeff is too much of an influence. The daughter of fruit pickers, Louise lived in tents while growing up; she dreams of “staying put.”
Of course, a romantic triangle develops; but even this must yield to the poignancy of transience that no less occupies the spirit of this film than it does the spirit of Federico Fellini’s haunting La strada, about threadbare traveling circus performers, two years hence.
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