Brains Vs Bronco


“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.

12 Responses to “Brains Vs Bronco”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Ray’s film makes a nice double bill with Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER (72).

    Right on: I can’t think of any culture, except American, in which one is a “loser” solely because of individual personal failings. It’s our Calvinist heritage, also wrapped up in the myth of the American Dream. But “losers” are both reviled and romanticized . . .

  2. Calvinism is mainstream in Scotland, but we don’t have the pioneer spirit (we have the reverse: those of us who didn’t leave have been here centuries, refreshed by helpful immigrants) . We don’t have a can-do attitude. It’s more “cannae dae that.” So “loser” isn’t a useful way of distinguishing one person from another… :)

  3. Ray’s principle subject was “losers.”

  4. “My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience,” he famously said.

  5. Robert Keser Says:

    Maybe it’s typical American winner-takes-all bravado, but the Mitchum character rather fatalistically identifies himself as a loser (“Chicken today, feathers tomorrow”). His real problem, which is not at all unusual in human society, is becoming interested in an unavailable woman. Throughout the film, he doesn’t have a chance with Hayward’s wife character, who moves from treating him with outright hostility, which then slightly mellows to general suspicion, and finally resolves as pragmatic toleration. She really has little interest in him aside from mediating his bad influence on her chosen spouse (who mirrors Mitchum’s monetary mismanagement, which is a cardinal sin in her scrambling to make a home ). But, as stated elsewhere, “nobody is a loser all the time”.

  6. Tom Farrell Says:

    Nick said that “The Lusty Men” is about the great American search for a home of one’s own, which ultimately he never found himself.

  7. …in which case, much of Mitchum’s interest in Hayward presumably comes from the way she’s determined to make a home. And she wants to do it using the house he was born in. He might almost see her as a mother.

  8. estienne64 Says:

    Perhaps Charlton Heston’s friend just meant that Ray didn’t know ‘a way to lose more slowly’ (to quote another fine Robert Mitchum film).

  9. Ray himself writes, in I Was Interrupted, of deliberately losing all his money before marrying Gloria Grahame so she would get it from him in the inevitable divorce. Now THAT’S thinking ahead.

  10. Tom Farrell Says:

    Yes, Nick Ray was a loser in the ways he lost everything. But didn’t John Huston and Orson Welles also lose in the end? It’s sad but true.

  11. Dorothy Parker to Sam Goldwyn: “In the entire history of the world, not one person ever had a happy ending.”

  12. “Good director. Good with actors. Good with the camera. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”

    I came across this while browsing idly through the Shadowplay archives this morning and, damn, an hour later this little anecdote is still nagging at me. It’s just so wrong.

    What is reminds of that obsession–which may be peculiarly American but really I haven’t the faintest idea–with claiming some complete and intuitive grasp of someone’s personality based on some one, petty, irrelevant detail that supposedly tells the savvy observer all that needs to be known. It makes me think of urban legends of canny businessmen making hiring decisions based on a candidate’s putting sugar in his coffee or whatnot.

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