Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men shares traits with some of his finest films; it’s tough, bleak, tender, and unexpectedly poetic. The devastation of this one film is swift and total. It’s one of the films being shown as part of Susan Hayward’s 24 hour marathon for Summer Under the Stars. Indisputably one of the greatest actresses and beauties of her day, The Lusty Men illuminates her power, what made her such a compelling person to watch.
Susan moved as if she couldn’t be contained, but even in the publicity shot above (probably my favorite photo of her) the same is true. The way her lips are drawn into a pout, her eyes gleaming with defiance, as if she’s challenging the photographer and whoever looks at the photo to mess with or underestimate her. Story of her life.
In The Lusty Men, she plays dutiful wife Louise to Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy). Both are dreaming of a better life and income, hoping to buy a house that once belonged to Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum). Jeff is a faded rodeo star who quit after an injury – a battered man both physically and emotionally, but with an air of detachment. He invites no pity. Wes decides to go into rodeo himself, bringing Jeff along as his partner/trainer. He doesn’t discuss this with Louise. She’s opposed at first but reluctantly goes along. It’s one of those rare roles where Susan isn’t clawing her way to the top, instead she has to watch another person do that.
Louise is the patient one but Wes is so ambitious it might just undo him. Working at a ranch isn’t fast enough for him. He needs more money and he needs it now. Louise is willing to wait though, because as she reminds Wes, they want the same thing: a decent, steady life. And yet, Susan Hayward still can’t be contained. She is, to use the cliche, fiery, which is even more apt considering her red hair. She’s fiercely devoted to Wes, even when he gets greedier and makes a total fool of himself. She’s always patient; frustrated but patient.
The rodeo is a bleak place populated by hard and weary people. One of these is a bull rider with a painful scar that takes up half his face, and his bitter wife. Bull riding, cattle roping, it’s all such a pointless spectacle that’s ripe for tragedy. That scarred bull rider becomes a casualty of the ring. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. And imagine the cruelty to the animals who are also subjected to this “sport.” Nicholas Ray paints a deft portrait of this desolation, which still holds its own allure despite the danger. How could it not when the money is so easy to come by? Wes is merely a rookie but he soon becomes a sensation, earning more and more in each new city. Why would he stop even after he’s made enough to buy the house he and Louise want? Or just because she wants him to, because she doesn’t want him to end up like Jeff or any of the other countless broken men? And she wants him alive. But that doesn’t matter to him. All that matters is the money and the glory.
By this point, Jeff has fallen for Louise. Maybe it’s because she offers stability, something Wes takes for granted as he’s chasing new records. She’s his equal. And Susan Hayward equaled Mitchum’s own towering stature even at her petite size. They both match each other’s smolder in this film, but she’s more intense. It’s that intensity that makes me think she would’ve been an excellent sparring partner opposite Lee Marvin. She has potent chemistry with both of her costars but the film orbits her, in my opinion.
There also happens to be a young flirt who trails after Wes, clinging to him, enchanted by his records and big winnings. And he relishes the attention like the big dope he is. What a shame that Louise’s devotion is one sided. It’s quite ironic that both Wes and Jeff try to pin her down with their own idiotic notions. In the beginning when she tries to dissuade Wes from rodeo, she accuses Jeff of latching onto him. (He gets half of Wes’ money in rodeo). Jeff turns it back on her, insulting her by saying Wes found her in a tamale joint. Like she’s nothing more than an object!
“They tell me anything’s better than working in a tamale joint. Even marriage.”
“I’m gonna explain something to you. My folks were fruit pickers. My pa was a drifter. I grew up in tents and camps. I never knew what a pair of silk stockings was like until I was 19. We never had a house. Got so I was jealous of people who lived in houses and stayed in one place and had somebody to love. It’s all I could ever think about. I picked Wes out to marry and I picked him real slow and real careful and I didn’t pick him for the wild horses he could ride or the gold belt buckles he might win. But if he still wants to go in the morning, I’m going with him. Because there’s one thing I’m not going to let you do: and that’s turn him into a saddle tramp like yourself.”
And suddenly this tall man is cut down.
Wes tells Louise that she couldn’t even make a dollar out of four quarters when he found her (there’s that infuriating word again). But although Louise doesn’t get a chance to lay into him right then and there, he gets what’s coming to him. (A punch square in the jaw from Jeff, if you’re wondering).
Susan has one deliciously venomous scene with that young flirt that involves her dumping champagne over her head and pushing her until she hits the floor. Wes found her and he’s going to keep her, whether he likes it or not. That’s why she rejects Jeff, the better man.
The Lusty Men boasts an excellent performance by Arthur Kennedy too, as well as gorgeous photography of wide open landscapes that evoke so much richness and life.
Susan Hayward did excel at a particular character type, but you’ll never see her playing the same role twice. I’m so happy TCM is devoting an entire day to her, and I hope other people will discover how much of a phenomenal star she was.
Click on the banner below for more Summer Under the Stars posts!