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"I have two acting styles -- with or without a horse," once claimed the self-deprecating Robert Mitchum. One of the actor's best Westerns was The Lusty Men (1952), a look at contemporary rodeo riders co-starring Arthur Kennedy as a fellow broncobuster and Susan Hayward as the latter's wife and third member of an explosive romantic triangle. At that point in his career, Mitchum considered the film one of three favorites among his own work.
Co-adapted by former cowboy David Dortort (a creator of television's Bonanza and High Chaparral) from a Life magazine story by Claude Stanush about rodeo champions Bob Crosby and Casey Tibbs, The Lusty Men uses footage from actual rodeos to create perhaps the most convincing and atmospheric portrait of rodeo life ever contained in a commercial movie. Nicholas Ray directs with the eye for the offbeat that distinguished such personal films as Johnny Guitar (1954) and In a Lonely Place (1950).
Mitchum plays a banged-up former rodeo star forced into retirement after being gored by a bull. He's hired by Kennedy to train him so he, too, can become a champion. Once the sparks fly between Mitchum and the headstrong Hayward, Kennedy challenges his mentor to a showdown in the rodeo ring.
To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him "The Mystic" because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters.
Susan Hayward, who was borrowed from 20th-Century-Fox at great expense to RKO, was leery of the project from the start since her part was practically non-existent and had to be completely rewritten and expanded once she signed on. According to Lee Server in his biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Nicholas Ray tried to stimulate her interest in the role: "He zeroed in on a mutual enjoyment of Thomas Wolfe - and certainly drew from her an excellent performance, but she remained typically tempestuous and cranky - Mitchum called her "the Old Gray Mare" - and on one occasion held up production when she refused to play a scene as written." She took issue with the dialogue proclaiming her character had the foulest mouth she'd ever heard in her life. Eventually, they managed to come up with new lines that met with Hayward's approval.
Unlike Hayward, Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy relished the macho rodeo atmosphere surrounding the shoot and even violated the terms of their studio's insurance coverage by performing some reckless stunts on horses and bulls. Mitchum recalled, (in Server's biography) "I get on...and they all say, 'It's OK, he's just a retired old bronc,' and this thing is turned loose...and I can't get off him. They'd go in and try and pick me off and my horse would turn around and kick the pickup horse...I'm bleeding from my hair by this time.." Even Ray felt compelled to show he had what it took, hopping aboard a bucking bronco at the San Francisco Cow Palace. "I guess," he said, "we all have a little of that wildness in us."
Mitchum, who usually pretended indifference to his own performances, responded well to Ray's painstaking direction and requested to see the film when it was two-thirds complete. Ray later recalled that Mitchum was so proud of what he saw that the two went to a bar to celebrate. Ray's final memory of a drunken evening was Mitchum encountering a pair of FBI agents, borrowing a gun from one of them and firing it into a stack of dirty dishes.
Producers: Jerry Wald, Norman Krasna (uncredited)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: David Dortort, Horace McCoy, Alfred Hayes (uncredited), Andrew Solt (uncredited), Jerry Wald (uncredited), from story by Claude Stanush
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Original Music: Roy Webb
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Principal Cast: Susan Hayward (Louise Merritt), Robert Mitchum (Jeff McCloud), Arthur Kennedy (Wes Merritt), Arthur Hunnicutt (Booker Davis), Frank Faylen (Al Dawson), Walter Coy (Buster Burgess).
BW-114m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe