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Lusty Men, The (DVD Review)

20 Oct, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, Arthur Kennedy, Arthur Hunnicutt.

Though he could fashion color-saturated melodramas of white-heat intensity with the best of them, Nicholas Ray also made some uncommonly grown-up movies for their day that got to me at an early age, including They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground — all of which I’d seen before my mid-teens. In terms of a filmmaker who inspired me to name my older son Nick, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause remain my favorites for their delirious dramatics and almost unimaginable ability to make Trucolor and WarnerColor seem expressive instead of someone’s lab mistake.

But I like the more sober early black-and-whites as well, and high on this list would be his 1952 rodeo drama, which I first saw on TV in 1960 when I had just turned 13. As a result, we’re looking at one of the longest waits I’ve ever had for a lifelong favorite to finally make it to DVD (though it did get a laserdisc release way back when). Newly remastered, this is as solid a movie as Sam Peckinpah’s still woefully underrated Junior Bonner, and anyone who has known me a long time knows how much I love that one.

Like Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night, the Ray picture is among the very few that classy producer Jerry Wald made at RKO in the early ’50s before its release to TV in a package different from the one that contained the bulk of the studio’s holdings (including a lot of early Robert Mitchums). Both Men and Clash seem to have successfully played dodgeball against the crass influence of ’50s RKO owner/vulgarian Howard Hughes, whose output had charms of its own. One of the many things I like about Men is its lack of hokum and honest portrayal of individuals on the edge, both emotionally and financially.

One of the great scenes Ray ever filmed — Wim Wenders excerpted it in his real-life portrait of the dying director in Lightning Over Water — comes very early in the picture when an aging rodeo star (Mitchum) gets off the bus to visit what looks like an abandoned version of his old Texas childhood home, only to find that an old-timer has bought it at an auction. This leads to a chance meeting with a married couple (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward) eking out a ranch-hand’s existence under her frugal bookkeeping and desire to buy the first house of her life (she had previously been, in her courting days, the hottest babe in the hash house). The otherwise straight-arrow Hayward sizes up Mitchum as a borderline bum whose rodeo reputation is bereft of any real substance, an opinion that doesn’t change when the husband supposedly under her control gets rodeo stars in his eyes and decides to pursue the circuit’s perceived rewards under Mitchum’s tutelage, which includes his taking half of any winnings.

The main screenwriter here was Horace McCoy, whose classic novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was a little more than a decade-and-a-half away from being memorably delineated in not dissimilar screen fashion when it came to looking at people on the fringe with not many ways to earn some bucks. The rodeo circuit is portrayed as win-big-one-day and go-bust-the-next — “bust” referring not only to the absence of income but broken bones and even permanently scarred faces. It’s a life of trailer parks, boozy crap games (there go the winnings) and outings at sometimes raucous nightspots where some chippie is likely to get a foot in the behind from the wife of a flirtation. This is a life that hasn’t been part of Hayward’s calculation, though she does finally warm up to Mitchum (a little) when Kennedy begins letting minor success go to his head.

Lee Garmes shoots it up close when it matters and from a further-out vantage point when the need is for that; there are a couple Hayward close-ups here that aren’t like anything else that I can recall from the era in terms of sensuality, other than maybe the ones of Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell that open They Live by Night. The cast is in top form, including good old Arthur Hunnicutt (this is from the brief period when Hunnicutt was almost a star, given his supporting Oscar nomination for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky from the same year). I think the one mistake the movie makes comes right at the end when the reaction of Kennedy and Hayward to something shattering that has just happened isn’t given enough time or room to breathe dramatically. But the tone Ray maintains throughout is otherwise perfect and perfectly consistent against a triangular dramatic set-up that seems almost foolproof. Matter of fact (and this was eerie at the time), about three weeks after my first viewing of Men, I caught Rory Calhoun’s stock car cheapie Thunder in Carolina at a small-town 1960 drive-in. It followed, uncredited, the Ray film so closely that I was always five minutes ahead of everything that was going to happen.

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