1 Hr., 53 Mins.
The Lusty Men / Pursued April 2, 2019
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
relaying his life story to his beloved, Thor (Teresa Wright), as he lay injured in a decrepit house in a stark New Mexican setting. (This narrative device is moderately unconvincing, given that Thor, whom we understand grew up with Jeb as his adopted sister, witnessed much of the story being shared firsthand.) He is, apparently, being followed.
The title of the film, we learn, refers to the fact that Jeb has grown up with a target on his back. As a boy, he survived the mass killing of his family — the result of a romantic betrayal — and was unofficially adopted by Thor’s mother, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson). But this has presented a problem. The killings also had to do with a feud between the Callums and the Rands, which has made Jeb’s mere existence fraught. The venom grows more potent as he ages.
Pursued is knottier than your typical, facile family-feud Western. There are also elements of soap opera (as shown by the somewhat-scandalous romance between Thor and Jeb and Jeb’s eventually shown disloyalty to his adopted family) and courtroom drama. The film’s audacity, whether narratively or stylistically based (it’s also a cinematic den of landscape ogling and noirish claustrophobia) is captivating in itself. All is supposedly supposed to fall under the category of the Western, but it’s so reflective and tortured that it rings more as soap opera playing dress-up.
Pursued almost works, but there’s a disconnect — it’s pleasurably off-the-rails, but the earnestness at play prevents it from being as fun, or as rightfully zany, as I wish it were. Had Nicholas Ray directed it, hopefully in the same mode as not The Lusty Men but the warped Johnny Guitar, perhaps it’d be more of a delicacy than a weird but mostly traditional exercise.
The Lusty Men: A
uring the earlier portion of his career, Robert Mitchum most often flitted across films noirs and Westerns — genres that more or less met in The Lusty Men. To me, though, a more streamlined unification of the distinct genres came in 1947, with the plainly off-center hybrid Pursued.
Pursued unfurls in flashback, with a man named Jeb Rand (Mitchum)
a member of the American press but in an idolatrous Frenchman. It hinted at Godard’s filmmaking career to come, which was unopposed to taking characteristics seen in films like Ray’s and contorting them. It also marked the beginning of a somewhat late-stage reexamination of Ray’s body of work, which, though not having entirely gone without appreciation, had yet to be equal parts dissected and enjoyed.
Ray had an eclectic 1950s. The decade was rife with relatively straightforward masterworks (1955’s Rebel Without a Cause) and subtly to defiantly outré risks (from 1950’s In a Lonely Place to 1954’s Johnny Guitar). Even when traversing modes, though, Ray, for the most part, maintained what could be described as an overarching tenor of skepticism — a varying though usually strong discontentment with social mores and the so-called American dream.
Among his most disillusioned movies is The Lusty Men (1952). Adapted from a
novel by Claude Stanush, it’s a noir-inflected Western that functions as a collection of skyscraper highs and kick-in-the-stomach lows, capturing a dichotomy between hard reality and imagined success.
It begins at an end. Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a seasoned rodeo competitor, has decided that his time in the competitive saddle has expired. He’s just been inevitably injured by a Brahma bull, and, being in his late 30s, cannot stand the thought of having to pick himself back up once again. Penniless and without any concrete goals, he journeys back to his childhood home, mainly to see if some money he’d hidden under the deck in a tobacco tin years ago stuck around.
The nostalgic visit proves fortuitous. While roaming around the property, making friendly conversation with its new owner in the meantime, he crosses the paths of the married couple Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy and a fantastic Susan Hayward), who are looking to buy the house for themselves. Wes, who works as a cowhand, helps Jeff get a job at his ranch after discovering that they have a good repartee. In turn, Wes, who has always dabbled in rodeo competitions but has never committed, becomes Jeff’s mentee, his chances of joining the circuit suddenly upped.
The Lusty Men turns cowboy lore on its head. Mythology tends to promote individuality and liberation — the cowboy as the free spirit who is also nail-tough and the master of his domain. Unbothered, almost. But not a cowboy in the film is ever unencumbered. He must work hard to maintain appearances; he must work hard just generally. He’s never carefree. A romantic, heroic fate usually awaits a cowboy, if a finite conclusion is part of the mythos swirling around in your head. In The Lusty Men, a cowboy, given few other options besides competing in rodeos, is doomed, bound for ruin in a system that crosses persona and commerce.
Sadness hangs over The Lusty Men in the same way Mitchum’s trademark hooded lids droop over his eyes. We cannot imagine a heartening outcome coming from any of this. Although Jeff is quickly able to trade his sudden purposeless for mentorship, he will nonetheless still be without much of an objective in his life. Aside from helping Wes, who is bound to be killed or irreperably injured, what else does he have to work toward? Louise, ever-obstinate, loves her husband. But her frank and understandable dislike of competition will take a toll on her marriage. (At first, it is agreed that Wes will be part of the rodeo circuit only until he makes enough money to get the earlier mentioned dream home, but this agreement, predictably, falls through.)
The love triangle we expect to form materializes, kind of. But attraction is more emotional than it is sexual. These are people who just want someone to confide in, but, because of their mostly opposing worldviews, will never get exactly what they want from the partners seen here or elsewhere. These characters are optimistic, but only to a point. In The Lusty Men, we find them at a shared moment in time where they wonder if things are going to work out. Of course they aren’t, but it’s exactly this sense of foredoomed hope that makes this movie, among Ray’s best yet most underloved, stir.
n his review of the World War II-set Bitter Victory (1957), the film critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a hyperbolic but not entirely unreasonable statement about its co-writer and director. Declared Godard: “Cinema is Nicholas Ray.” The claim, though pretty brazen, is notable for a number of reasons. It underscored that Ray was a filmmaker so often taken for granted in his home country that he'd find his biggest champion not in