The Lusty Men, Nicholas Ray (1952)

I’ve been watching and writing about a great ‘lost’ film of late; Nick Ray’s The Lusty men:
In a scene in Wim Wenders’ film Lightning Over Water (1980) at a lecture held at Vassar College, the director shows a lengthy sequence from Nicholas Ray’s 1952 film The Lusty Men. In answering questions that followed, Wenders reports Ray’s remarks as follows:

In any case, this film isn’t a Western. It’s really about people who want nothing more than a home of their own. That was actually the great American dream at the time, and all the statistical questionnaires that ask what Americans aim for, 90 per cent always gave the answer: ‘Owning a home of my own.’ And that’s what the film’s about. (OF, 119)

Ray’s point is an interesting one, since The Lusty Men isn’t a Western in any conventional sense; it’s a post-Western as I would define it, and a very good early example of this type of modern film of the New West. As Ray’s comments helpfully go on to explain, one aspect of his definition that marks it off as separate from a Western, is its engagement with contemporary social, economic and political changes. In the immediate post-war America, the time when the film is set and made, the nation sought stability and consensus, a renewal of family values, becoming epitomised in the suburban dream of owning your own home. As Ray suggests, this has been an abiding dream, and one which, I would add, has always also had a special resonance in the West where settlement and home-building was a mark of achievement and proof of the conquest of land and nature. Yet as a contrary pull the West itself seemed to demand a type of wild, rugged individualism. What The Lusty Men explores are the different ways in which concepts of home appeal to us, through memory and nostalgia as well as the desire to fix roots in a particular time and place; as places to run from as well as to.

In the opening scenes of the film – a section of which Wenders projects at the Vassar lecture in Lightning over Water – Jeff McCloud enacts a powerful journey within which, as Wenders writes, “every shot gradually becomes a sign in some sort of runic script, that you slowly see and hear”. (OF, 122) He calls Ray’s work here a “song” with its visual notes and melodies, pauses and refrains working on screen in one of the most extraordinary sequences in film history, and most certainly, for me, in establishing the post-Western. This is perhaps part of what Jacques Rivette was hinting at in his famous review of the film, “On Imagination” in Cahiers du Cinema in 1953, when he wrote of Ray’s “certain dilation of expressive detail, which ceases to be detail so that it may become part of the plot” found in “dramatic close-ups” and a “breadth of modern gesture” contributing to “an anxiety about life, a perpetual disquiet” often capturing “the feverish and impermanent” even in the “most tranquil of moments”. (in Hiller 104-5)

In the opening scenes, Ray begins, under the titles, with the razzamatazz and spectacle of the rodeo parade; with bunting, patriotic bands, Indians, cowboys, wagons and horses that invite us as an audience into the coming attraction, advertised on a screen-filling billboard as “The Wildest Show on Earth”. Immediately the film signals one of its key themes, the transformation of the West into performance and spectacle, into a perpetually self-fulfilling narrative of mythic proportions, a “wild show” acting out in the rodeo ring its stories of conquest, masculinity, and control. A counter-balance of violence emerges through the savage brahma bull ride that almost cripples Jeff McCloud, shot in naturalist style with blurred shots and point-of-view camera angles suggesting the residual brutality of the event. This is to be Jeff’s last ride, forcing him to leave the rodeo life. As he limps from the rodeo the announcer’s voice describes the next contestant quickly despatched by a bull called “Round-trip”: “He must have bought a one-way ticket”. As the camera cuts to the end of the rodeo, after the excitement of the crowd, we focus on Jeff alone, another man with a one-way ticket, walking in an extraordinary shot across the now desolate, windswept, shadowy rodeo grounds surrounded only by choking dust and swirling litter, looking forlorn like just another piece of trash abandoned after the event. The power of this shot conveys this absolute sense of after-ness, with McCloud a man out of time, resembling photographs from the Farm Security Administration by Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon or Dorothea Lange, barely holding on to the fragments of his life in the Old West. With documentary precision and a wonderful slowness, both qualities admired remember by Wenders, McCloud stands in-between that older West of certainty and masculine order and the challenges of the emerging contingent world full of the “anxiety about life” and “perpetual disquiet” that Rivette sensed in the film. As the sequence ends the camera has him leave via a gate over which is prominently hung the sign “Stock Exit”. McCloud is now damaged, limping “stock” corralled by his life in the rodeo, carrying his entire possessions in a small duffle bag over his shoulder, and with nothing else to show for his twenty years of wandering the West. Suddenly from the classical action of the rodeo with its vibrant action conveyed by dazzling camera work and almost documentary concern for detail, Ray shifts the rhythm of the film, making the audience feel the actual duration of time passing, measured in ponderous and awkward gait of McCloud as he struggles against the wind to the exit point. No past, no present, no future, he is a broken figure on the edge of a changing world he barely comprehends.

This is one of the great unseen films of the modern West – rapidly taking on great significance in my new book on the post-Western.

Has anyone seen this film?????

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2 Responses to “The Lusty Men, Nicholas Ray (1952)”

  1. westlitblogger Says:

    The Lusty Men is a difficult film to find. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the US on DVD, and VHS copies are quite expensive (trying to track one down, though).

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    The “Stock Exit” may be so in another sense as well, a kind of pun on livestock and genre conventions. The cowboy exiting through a doorway is indeed a stock exit of the western film (e.g., the end of The Searchers).

    There’s an interesting tension in that opening sequence between the hokum of the announcer and the potential for real danger. The “one way ticket” joke seems somewhat flippant in combination with the shot of the cowboy going headfirst into the ground. The camera seems to poking fun at the patter as it moves from one eye to the other of the bull as the announcer talks about the ferocity of the animal’s eyes. But then the events that take place in the ring are pretty brutal. Maybe the tension is between the staging of the spectacle as a kind of safe family entertainment and the reality of large bodies in violent motion that can’t quite be contained by the attempts to sanitize what’s happening.


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