The Lusty Men (1952)

14 09 2008

It seems I forgot just how great Nicholas Ray is when he actually does “serious” movies. It’s been two years since I’ve anything from him other than Bigger than Life, which is certainly a good movie, but probably one that gets too much credit for being (intentionally) over-the-top and ridiclous. The Nicholas Ray here is the one that I first saw in The Savage Innocents and Rebel Without a Cause. He is perfectly capable of handeling human interactions in a completely realistic manner, which makes Bigger than Life seem all the more overrated. But it is the way that Ray juxtaposes the tension of human relations with the dramatic tension of the “action” genre, represented by rodeos in this case.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff McCloud, a seemingly washed-up rodeo performer. Between his performance here and the one in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, Mitchum is anything but the scenery-chewing monster that I made him out to be in The Night of the Hunter. Instead, he perfectly embodies the mysterious and painful past that the best performers of the decade specialized in. At this point, I can’t say I admire him quite as much as Henry Fonda, or even Randolph Scott but it is good to know that not everything Mitchum did was grounded in theatrical territory.

The other performances are fine, I suppose, but not nearly as important. It probably speaks to Ray’s overall talent as a director that he can make his film centered so much on Jeff McCloud, a character who he occassionaly abadons to display the response of the characters with whom he interacts. The second most important performance is probably Susan Hayward’s as Louise Merritt, the wife of Wes Merrit who McCloud breeds into a full-time rodeo superstar. Her character type – the concerned wife – isn’t entirely original, but there is something intriguing about her emotional responses to her husbands successes and failures. When he succeeds, she is thrilled and almost supportive but when he fails, she begins to voice her lack of faith in the “profession.” It is a small touch in the script, but it is such an important one as it displays the flaws in McCloud’s romantic interest.

Around this time, every female character in a Hollywood production was either a sultry, worldly back-stabbing vixen or a naive and incompetent safety blanket. Louise is neither, she is not “experienced” nor is she clueless. Her performance is such more convincing as a feminist statement than anything else that came out of 1950s Hollywood, which isn’t saying much considering how phony most femine statements were. Contrary to most “women power” films of the time period, Ray probably wasn’t looking to impress people with his progressiveness with this character. The sequences in which Wes begins to display the power going to his head are particularly impressive. As he becomes the man to flirt with, his wife shows a resilence as great as any of Mikio Naruse’s female protagonists. Louise is not made of steel, but she’s not made of toothpicks, either. She will fight (and later on, physically does!) but she will still be hurt by the many passes her husband receives.

Of course, it is also worth mentioning just how superbly crafted the film is, in that very technical way. Unfortunately, this has never gotten a DVD release, but if it did, I can only imagine how much it would enhance the experience. So much of Ray’s cinema seems to depend on the visual, so much so that even an alright TCM print doesn’t seem to do it justice. It is pretty bizarre too, that a film of this caliber hasn’t recieved more attention. Ray collaborating with Mitchum would be enough, but they are also at their very best here. Whatever the case, this is definitely one of those movies that a lot more people should know about, as it would likely be appreciated by almost everyone who gives it a chance.

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2 responses

15 09 2008
dan

Masterpiece. Probably, the best Ray.

15 09 2008
mrsemmapeel

Man, I can’t wait to see this. I’ve yet to see a Nicholas Ray I dislike.

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