“He’s always holding something back.”
“This film is really a film about people who want a home of their own,” Nicholas Ray said of The Lusty Men (1952).1 In this way the film’s central characters (two men and a woman) recall the teenage trio in Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, who find their one interlude of pure happiness playing house in a deserted mansion. In both cases, only two can find a home. Here the odd man out is the hero, played by Robert Mitchum, who also reportedly co-wrote the film with Ray and an assortment of helpers, coming up with the scenes as they were shot.2
Was any movie ever saddled with a more inappropriate title? Aside from the fact that it will disappoint anyone expecting gay porn and embarrass everyone else, “The Lusty Men” grossly misrepresents the film, which is presumably what the studio intended. (The title was Howard Hughes’ idea, and admittedly the working title, Cowpoke, is not much of an improvement.) RKO had on their hands a small-scale, gracefully bleak film, and they wanted to trick people into expecting a rootin’ tootin’ action-packed good time. The credits roll over marching-band music and the celebratory parade that opens a rodeo. Almost immediately, after a rider is thrown and badly hurt by a bull, the spectacle dissolves.
In a shot of dreamlike beauty, Robert Mitchum limps across a dusty, empty fairway with papers floating around him. A small bag slung over his shoulder holds all that he owns in the world. His stiff-legged, broken swagger lets you know that every bone in his body hurts, but also hints at the pride and power and grace he once had. (Mitchum’s panther tread is, of course, one of the glories of cinema.) He is Jeff McCloud, former bronc-busting champion of the world, now broke and forced into retirement by his injuries. He hitches a ride, gets out at a cross-roads and approaches a little shack. It’s the house he was born in, and he crawls under the foundation to find the tobacco can that still holds two nickels he saved as a boy. He’s invited in by the old man who now lives there alone, a “thinkin’ man” who tells him, “I like a place that’s lonely and private. Marriage — that’s lonely, but it ain’t private!” Jeff’s longing for a home, the theme of the film, is never spoken. It’s only glimpsed in this sequence and in the final scene, when he rolls over and buries his head in a woman’s embrace, huddling against her like a child in his mother’s arms.
As befit a man who arrived in California on a freight train, Mitchum was Hollywood’s go-to-guy for marginal, rootless characters who can’t fit into a family or a community: drifters, loners, rovin’ gamblers. On screen he gravitates toward card tables, roulette wheels and dice games, driven not by greed to win as much as by a passive ability to let things go. “A man shouldn’t shoot craps if he can’t stand to lose,” he says in The Lusty Men. He always knows the best he can hope for is to “lose more slowly,” as he says beside the roulette wheel in Out of the Past. He played all kinds of itinerants: exiles escaping criminal pasts, a globe-trotting marine, a roaming preacher, a nomadic sheepherder, a traveler on the rodeo circuit. He’s been a lot of places — “one too many” — and knows that wherever you go, all you find is yourself, and your past. “I couldn’t place my home if I were heartsick for it,” he says in Thunder Road, a movie in which he has a house and a family but is at home only on the road. Mitchum the one-time hobo never stopped seeing himself as fundamentally a drifter, someone who was only “here between trains.” He once said, “I’ve been in a constant motion of escape my entire life,”3 and it’s no wonder he meshed so perfectly with Nicholas Ray, who used as a touchstone a folk song called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”
At loose ends, jobless and homeless, Jeff falls in with a young couple, Wes and Louise Merritt (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward), a ranch hand and the girl he picked up in a tamale joint. The child of migrant fruit-pickers, she is consumed by the desire for a permanent home and a “decent, steady life.” But Wes, a rodeo amateur, is irresistibly drawn to the lure of fast money and thrills. In Jeff he sees his chance at the big time, and by becoming his coach and partner Jeff both finds a way back into the rodeo life and secretly hopes to steal what Wes has: a woman who will make a home for him. The men’s relationship rapidly curdles as they make the rounds of the rodeo circuit and Wes finds easy success. Wes’ hero worship is poisoned by his resentment of Jeff’s “freeloading,” since he takes half of the winnings, and by his tormenting suspicion that Jeff is a better man than he will ever be. (Other men in Mitchum’s movies are always knocking themselves out to prove they’re as manly as he is. It’s a lost cause, fellas.) Jeff starts to doubt his own motives, and suffers as he watches the younger man win the laurels for which he can no longer compete. Louise blames Jeff for leading her husband astray but gradually comes to trust him. His patience, dignity and quiet competence stand out more and more as Wes becomes a cocky, philandering drunk.
Arthur Kennedy’s specialty was ambivalence, and he’s brilliant as usual, balancing the weakness and decency in this callow, petulant man. Even Kennedy’s looks were ambivalent; he’s blonde and fine-featured, yet there’s some subtle flaw that keeps his face from being handsome. His smile is too aggressive, his voice too close to a whine. He never has the calm self-assurance that Mitchum displays, so he’s a perfect foil. Susan Hayward’s pedal-to-the-metal style can get monotonous, but here it’s well suited to her feisty, hard-headed character. It seems to be Louise’s utter, grounded certainty of what she wants that attracts Jeff, who never seems sure of what he wants. That, and her cooking. From his start in Westerns Mitchum retained something of the cowboy’s stance towards women in his movies. He is forever the lonesome drifter out in the cold, for whom a woman represents a warm hearth, a good meal, clean sheets, a home. He longs for these things but pursues them in a self-defeating way, often attaching himself to other men’s families and falling in love with married women who won’t leave their husbands. The closest thing he has to a family of his own in The Lusty Men is a little tomboy girl who travels with her father, a grizzled rodeo veteran, and who — in the film’s only cloying touch — mouths “I love you” to Jeff as he lies dying.
The rodeo world is flashy and desolate: dusty trailer parks where wives have to wash at outdoor pumps, men with horrible injuries forcing themselves to compete to show they’re not afraid, noisy parties and crap games and shameless rodeo groupies. Whenever a rider is thrown, as he lies in the ring maimed or even dying the announcer quickly calls the audience’s attention to the next contestant coming out. Wes loves this world and Louise hates it; Jeff has given his life to it yet sees it for what it is: “broken bones, broken bottles, broken everything.” You always feel he’s better than the life he’s chosen, just as you know he’s a better man than Wes (the tragedy in the end is that Jeff gives in to the urge to prove himself, when he doesn’t need to), yet it’s hard to say why. The quality lies more in Mitchum’s strong, melancholy, contained presence than in the part as written. The essence of Mitchum lies in hidden depths: those hints of amusement and skepticism, of violence and tenderness that seep through his impassive surface. You sense things going on behind the still, cool surface, suggestions of menace and compassion and old wounds. They’re never spelled out, but Mitchum knew how to hold our attention without explaining himself.
In a movie review in The New Yorker,4 David Denby stated, “an actor won’t last as a leading man unless he plays characters who want something passionately.” That sounds plausible, but then what about Robert Mitchum? What does Mitchum want? I’ve come to the conclusion that Mitchum’s enduring power lies in the way he leaves that question open. The motivations of his characters may be clear, but his performances blur them. The script may say he wants a woman, or a home, or money, or revenge, but he doesn’t really convey lust or greed or any kind of burning desire, any need. And yet you can’t just say he wants nothing — baby, he doesn’t care — because that would make him invulnerable, and you always believe that he can be hurt, that he has been hurt. This core of mystery is Mitchum’s gift to his movies. He’s always holding something back. Trying to figure him out is like dropping a stone into a well and listening for the splash. It falls and falls, and you never do find out how deep the well is.
- He added, “This was the great American search at the time.” Ray speaking to a group at Vassar in 1979, quoted in James Harvey, Movie Love in the Fifties, Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001, p. 187. [↩]
- According to Ray’s account. Ibid. [↩]
- Mitchum to Roderick Gilchrist in The Daily Mail (London), 1974. Reprinted in Mitchum: In His Own Words, ed. Jerry Roberts. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000, p. 163. An indispensable volume and wit, wisdom and weirdness from Hollywood’s most unpredictable interview subject. [↩]
- Jan. 29, 2007. [↩]