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Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952)

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Robert Mitchum and director Nicholas Ray on the set of Ray’s film The Lusty Men.

Last night, unable to sleep, I switched on TCM and caught about 40 minutes of Nicholas Ray’s brilliant modern day western, The Lusty Men – sort of a forerunner to John Huston’s The Misfits – which deals with life on the rodeo circuit, and features one of Robert Mitchum’s best performances.

As Roger Fristoe writes on the TCM website, “Mitchum plays a banged-up former rodeo star forced into retirement after being gored by a bull. He’s hired by Arthur Kennedy to train him so he, too, can become a champion. Once the sparks fly between Mitchum and the headstrong Susan Hayward, Kennedy challenges his mentor to a showdown in the rodeo ring.

To give the film its gritty, semi-documentary feeling, Ray spent months shooting on the rodeo circuit. He reportedly had only the bare outline of a script when filming began, so that scenes were written one night and shot the following day. Despite the hectic pace, Ray took so much time with individual scenes that Mitchum nicknamed him ‘The Mystic’ because of his habit of staring silently at the actors as he led them to probe the complexities of their characters . . .

Mitchum, who usually pretended indifference to his own performances, responded well to Ray’s painstaking direction and requested to see the film when it was two-thirds complete. Ray later recalled that Mitchum was so proud of what he saw that the two went to a bar to celebrate. Ray’s final memory of a drunken evening was Mitchum encountering a pair of FBI agents, borrowing a gun from one of them and firing it into a stack of dirty dishes.”

Using a great deal of location footage, and enhanced by Hayward’s reluctant participation in the project – which fits her character perfectly – the film is sharp, brutal, and offers a glimpse into the hard edged world of 1950s Western America, where modern day cowboys travel from one rodeo to the next in broken down trailers, in endless pursuit of prize money, won for punishing rides on bucking broncos, while their wives and girlfriends suffer on the sidelines – grateful for a cup of coffee or a hot shower offered by a friend, drifting from one honky-tonk bar to the next in search of momentary escape.

Most people know Ray, of course, from his most famous film, the iconic teen drama Rebel Without A Cause, which is a brilliant film, but so is this, and In A Lonely Place – arguably the best and most acidic film ever made about the Hollywood dream factory – and in the end, Ray emerges as one of the most important, and influential filmmakers of the 1950s, who the saw truth of an era in every American social strata, and brought that truth to the screen.

The Lusty Men is now available on DVD, and well worth checking out.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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