While a day at the rodeo is not typically considered to be the most interesting of settings for a motion picture outside of a weird short subject produced by folks in the midwest, there have been a few notable exceptions to shine across the silver screen from time to time. Some of you may cite Eight Seconds with former teen heartthrob Luke Perry to have been of interest. That said, the obscure ’80s music lover in me will always assume you’re talking about the short-lived Canadian new wave group of the same name whenever you mention said movie – for, unlike both the film and Luke Perry himself, the defunct pop band has managed to become popular again after all these years.
And then there are rodeo pictures that deserve a little more recognition than they probably get. If any. Well, I can only think of one such film, actually – and it certainly isn’t Sky Full of Moon, either. No, this one stars actual talent, most notably in the form of top-billed leads Susan Hayward, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Kennedy, and Arthur Hunnicutt. The movie itself is inappropriately entitled The Lusty Men (!), and if anyone ever wondered wondered what an RKO Rodeo Picture was like, they need only check this taut little ’50s drama to find out.
Interestingly enough, the human drama The Lusty Men exhibits a fair sign of film noir elements to it throughout. This in itself comes as little surprise considering the tale was helmed by director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), whose first directorial effort was the RKO-produced noir classic, They Live by Night only four years before. And while said aspects are easy to spot in many a film from the early ’50s, finding them woven into a rodeo picture is about as likely as actually finding an interesting rodeo picture. Fortunately, The Lusty Men is a stone that effectively manages to kill two birds, but keep its audience intrigued throughout.
Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is a former rodeo star who has managed to successfully spend all of his sizable earnings away on girls and gambling during his run as a famous shitkicker. After an injury forces him to reconsider his life, he wanders down to the very house he was born in, where he has a one-sided poignant conversation with a rather ornery old feller (Burt Mustin), who is considering selling the old, ever-dilapidating homestead to a local couple with the tiny dream of saving up just enough to buy the place. As fate would have it, the pairing in question, ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his missus, Louise (Susan Hayward), roll into frame to visually fix up the place. Jeff could care less and is drifting on down the road when an admiring Wes recognizes his hero.
Offering Jeff a job at the ranch he’s employed at (which is owned by an uncredited Glenn Strange, the fourth and final incarnations of Frankenstein’s Monster in Universal’s classic film franchise), Wes develops a bit of a man crush on the former rodeo idol, eventually building up the nerve to ask Jeff to train him in the fine art of being publicly suicidal atop, as Tom Lehrer would so memorably call it, “a half a ton of angry pot roast”. Jeff agrees to help the eager greenhorn out, for a fifty percent commission on any wins. Meanwhile, Wes’ feisty redheaded wife is less than enthusiastic over the childlike nature of these fool hearted, lusty men (nope, it still doesn’t fit), blaming Jeff for everything.
As Wes actually succeeds in becoming the next biggest thing in an industry that leaves a trail of empty booze bottles and blood-spattered cowboy hats in their wake (not to mention a shocking amount of M4M ads under the “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist), one gets the feeling that someone is going to wind up meeting their maker before too long. But director Ray and his sizeable staff of (mostly uncredited) writers manage to keep their tale of riders, wives, and the sordid details of their peculiar lives extremely intriguing throughout. Fortunes are made, dreams are shattered, ambitions turn into animosity, and – most importantly – co-star Arthur Hunnicutt (as a one-time star who works from the other side of things now) is always armed with an amusing anecdote.
Based on a novel by Claude Stanush, whose only other contribution to the film industry would prove to be The Newton Boys, the oddly titled film The Lusty Men is a captivating motion picture overall that even manages to toss a bit of that ol’ noir feeling at you right up to the final frame. Co-star Hunnicutt would later star alongside Mitchum’s son Jim as Uncle Jesse in a 1975 film entitled Moonrunners (a motion picture about moonshine runners, itself inspired by Robert’s classic Thunder Road), which would later be reworked as a television series called The Dukes of Hazzard.
Frank Faylen and his doppelganger Walter Coy (both of whom were cloned from Ted Knight, I’m almost certain of it), Carol Nugent (as Hunnicutt’s cute teenage daughter with a great big crush on Mitchum’s character), Maria Hart, Lorna Thayer (as the depressed wife of an ill-fated, washed-up rider), and future Mickey Mouse Club regular Jimmie Dodd (who would also write the famous “Mickey Mouse March”) co-star here. A number of regular bit players can be seen (or heard) during the film’s many rodeo sequences – the bulk of which are stock footage taken from what I can only guess were weird short subjects.
Said stock footage stands out here like stock footage in an interesting rodeo picture that contains noticeable traces of film noir in this Warner Archive release; the DVD debut of a neglected classic. While the movie was filmed and released in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, several moments look like they were set up for a widescreen shoot, in particular a tense hallway confrontation between our three main leads. But that’s neither here nor there, and both the video and audio aspects of this Manufactured on Demand disc are commendable. An accompanying theatrical trailer is from the British release of the film, wherein just about every double entendre (“Any time your plumbin’ don’t work, just call McCloud”) is included for extra added incentive.
Highly recommended. It’s not all that often that you see rodeo film noir, after all.