I had a belly full of stitches the first time I saw The Lusty Men. It was at a screening of a beautiful 35mm print at SIFF 2014. I was so determined to see it that I gave myself a week to recover from minor surgery. You could say I related, in a small way, to the beaten and bruised rodeo men up on the screen.
It was more than worthy of the effort, which is why I was thrilled to learn Warner Archive would be giving this brutal, funny and lively film a DVD release. This modern day Nicholas Ray western is the kind of discovery classic film fans yearn for.
Set in the rodeo circuit, The Lusty Men reveals this dangerous, but intoxicating world with almost documentary detail. It smoothly blends those moments of realism with gritty, often risqué drama and a battle-scarred sense of humor.
At the center of it all is Robert Mitchum, who has a lived-in comfort with his role as legendary rodeo rider Jeff McCloud. Recovering from a bad run-in with a bull, the limping cowboy retires from the circuit. He visits his childhood home, a humble shack on an old ranch. There he crosses pathes with Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), aspiring rodeo star and his loyal wife Louise (Susan Hayward).
Merritt convinces McCloud to teach him his trade so that he and the wife can save up for their own ranch. He reluctantly accepts, drawn in by the promise of shared winnings, and maybe just as much because he still has sawdust in his veins. Before long the two have hit the circuit, with a highly reluctant Louise in tow.
Mitchum has trained his prodigy well, and Wes is immediately a star. He becomes intoxicated by his success, taking increasing risks and seeming to forget why he has stepped into this crazy world in the first place. When a rodeo floozy attempts to brand him with a bite, it is Louise who has to kick her in the can and shove her away. He takes the attention, and his success for granted as soon as he wins his first wad of prize money.
Louise fights for her husband, while McCloud smoothly tries to convince her to try the domestic life with him. This against a backdrop of rowdy, traumatized rodeo stars past and present and the wives who watch anxiously from the sidelines.
Ray's drama throbs with adrenaline, though he wisely cuts into the action with moments of calm. When an injured Mitchum limps across an empty stadium, the director takes his time examining the debris floating through the lonely arena, chased with perfectly billowing blankets of dust. For every wild party or raucous event, there's space given for yearning and anxious reflection--those times when the players wonder if they are in the right game.
The rodeo scenes are alarming in their brutality. It all seems less sport that survival, with men throwing themselves into danger over and over again. You feel how out of control the riders are, holding on with one hand, everything spinning around them in a blur.
As dangerous as it all seems, through McCloud's eyes you see how the money is only the initial draw. Rodeo brings out the primal in these men. By riding well, they prove themselves warriors. The feeling of invincibility intoxicates them as much as the wealth, booze and sex.
The film was even richer viewing the second time around. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to revisit it whenever I wish. I certainly intend to do so.
Disc image quality is sharp and clean. The DVD includes a trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Check out my review of the SIFF 2014 screening of The Lusty Men here.