Friday, April 9, 2010
I'm tired and I want to go home: Nicholas Ray's THE LUSTY MEN
Nicholas Ray was one of the greatest, iconoclastic directors in American cinema. He saw passion in creativity, horror in conformity, and beauty in doomed love. Therefore, it's no surprise that he was able to take a fairly routine RKO script and weave it into a passion project about the loneliness of being homeless, one which both director and star Robert Mitchum were able to look back on with love for what they had created.
In Ray's films, it feels that the luckier a person is at their job (which serve as a sort of surrogate home, just as Ray's directing gig was himself), the unluckier he is at love, and vice versa--Bowie's downward spiral of a crime spree is tempered by his love for Keechie; Dix's screenwriting comeback is accepted at the exact moment when he loses his grip on his girlfriend; Tommy Farrell loathes being a dishonest mob lawyer but finds a soul mate in dancer Vicki. In the opening moments of The Lusty Men, this paradox is evident, as Jeff McCloud shines as a rodeo star in front of a cheering audience of thousands, but only a cross-dissolve later, the other side reveals itself. Jeff gets an injury, and his career is all but over. He walks across an empty arena, newspapers blowing in the wind, the crowd's cheers silenced and long gone home.
Just as he loses one home, he visits the first one he's ever known: the house he was born in. Jeff's first stop on a hitch-hike to a steadier life is to the house he grew up in. The body language and heavy eyes of Mitchum reveal the weight this place in time has on Jeff. Almost as though he's never left or ever grown up, Jeff crawls under his house, fumbles around in the dark, and finds mementos of a childhood he's long left behind (or has he?)--a toy gun, two nickels and an old newspaper. Memories of a time when he felt the ground beneath his feet.
By this point you might not think there's much of a plot in The Lusty Men. There is a plot, concerning Jeff's mentoring of a young farm hand Wes Merritt into a rodeo star while falling for Wes' wife Louise, played with snap by Susan Hayward, but Ray's heart is more concerned with the characters he loves so much rather than a typical 3-act structure. Ray was very proud of his ability to "wing it" on the making of this movie (the script was more or less being written as filming progressed, usually with the support of his lead actor), and it was a small miracle he was able to do so at RKO for the notorious Howard Hughes. At 2 hours, the film works slowly and gracefully, with exciting scenes devoted to the rodeo games and special attention going to the rough-and-tumble men who participate in these games. In other words, this is the kind of script which would decidedly NOT get someone into film school, but the themes which Ray finds fascinating--how every scar tells a story, or how American masculinity in the 1950s was marred by the lack of a real home--make their way into the film with real intelligence, and the watermark of a natural-born film maker.
Ray once took great pride in "taking the gun away from Bogart" in Knock on Any Door, and in The Lusty Men, he does the same with Mitchum, an actor so well remembered for his laconic masculinity and his enigmatic worldliness in equal measures as his off-screen bad boy image and his seemingly nonchalant disinterest in acting. It's very difficult to imagine anyone else playing Jeff McCloud, because Mitchum puts his whole body into this role (that devastating little gimp...), and like McCloud, Mitchum only wore the stoic mask to hide a desire and a tenderness that could become so misunderstood if revealed. This is the same actor who wrote poetry, played saxophone and released a calypso album, among other side passion projects. Given Ray's unique trademark of guiding personally revealing performances from his actors, it wouldn't be a surprise if there was a lot of Jeff McCloud in Robert Mitchum. Or maybe I just don't want to imagine the real Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell's real-life counterpart.
In the sad end, it is homelessness which kills Jeff McCloud, who begins his journey revisiting the first home he's ever known, and he ends it in the last one he's ever wanted, in the arms of the woman he loves and shares his longing for a gravitationally-bound life. It might not be much, but it's proof that frankly, Mitchum did give a damn.