“I’ve got a strong back and a weak mind,” says Robert Mitchum near the start of Nick Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN. Later, asked “You a thinking man?” he replies “I can get out of the rain, that’s about it,” thereby establishing his smarts — listeners who focus on what he says rather than how he says it will derive a different impression, but we know.
Rumours of the film’s scriptlessness appear to be exaggerated (see Bernard Eisenschitz’s excellent Ray bio for backstory) but they did start with an unfinished scenario and Mitchum did contribute dialogue of his own. I’d love to think these lines are his.
Elsewhere, Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part gets all the funny lines. Despite her dislike of westerns and her deep suspicion of this “rodeo film,” our friend Nicola really enjoyed him.
The objection she raised to the greater part of the film had to do with the romantic triangle between Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, which seems at first unfairly weighted — overwhelmingly so — in favour of Mitchum. But Kennedy is married to Wayward Hayward, so the Hays Code determines that Mitch must be relegate to the role of Romantic Rival Who Tests and Ultimately Strengthens the Bonds of Marriage. Which is fine in narrative terms, but not something we actually root for because Mitch is lovable, melancholic and mucho manly, and Kennedy is basically a weasel — good actor, and he applies all of his weaselly equipment to the role, having a particularly good time with the stuff where his character, drunk on his success as rodeo star (and also drunk on drink) behaves like an asshole.
He also has an appalling jacket, the broadest checks I’ve ever seen on a living human being. It’s like he was standing by the window when they dropped the atom bomb.
So the film’s happy ending isn’t really happy, and indeed it’s played for all the lack of conviction you could ever wish for, in the time-honoured fashion of Hollywood endings disliked by the director. But the scene before that works as tragedy — all that matters is the story of Mitchum the broken-down bronco buster, in love with a woman he can’t have, destroying himself over it, perhaps without even properly realizing why. His last scene is like the Beast’s farewell in Cocteau.
When Charlton Heston was contemplating doing 55 DAYS AT PEKING for Ray, he asked a buddy who had previous experience of the director.
“Good director. Good with actors. Good with the camera. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”
I always disliked the American concept of “loser” — which doesn’t really exist so much elsewhere in the world — which presupposes a character type, the person who will lose, as if it were a choice or an attribute rather than a combination of such things with the workings of chance (was Rockefeller a winner? He’s dead, isn’t he, and I’m alive, typing this in my Homer Simpson shorts). But in the case of Ray and various of his characters, losing is a choice, taken more or less consciously, by someone who rejects the terms of the contest or who wishes to be punished and thus redeemed.