Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 141: The Sundowners and The Lusty Men
I was most attracted to this film because of the re-pairing of Mitchum and Kerr, who were both fantastic in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison. This reunion is not as successful but it is certainly worth a look.
In terms of being a Western, this film stretches the definition but as someone who has pushed those boundaries myself, that was no bother. It revolves around the “cowboy” lifestyle, except here they’re herding sheep instead of cattle. It takes place on the frontier and certainly explores the difference between frontier living and a more civilized existence. To add some Western color, there is at least one fist fight and plenty of drinking. Do not expect any gunfights though… this is not that kind of Western.
Mitchum pulls off the accent of an Australian drover surprisingly well. He’s good in the film but I’d argue that he’s not completely at home in the character the way he was with Mr. Allison. Deborah Kerr, on the other hand, is fantastic. The more I watch of her work, the more I am convinced she was the Meryl Streep of her day and probably one of the greatest actresses we’ve ever had. Ustinov shines as the supporting character which is no surprise because he’s always fun to watch.
My main gripe with the film is its lack of conflict. Besides a forest fire and a few family squabbles, the movie (described as “heartwarming” on the streaming service) is too consistently cheery. It lacks depth and darkness. I don’t mean that it should have been radically different but the filmmakers fail to create an enticing narrative when their characters consistently win. Even the small losses the family experiences along their journey are immediately overwhelmed with happy victories. Ultimately, the film could have explored what we called in school “naturalism”, showing how these characters are stuck in their world and uneasy to escape. The ending, which is a bright, sunny Hollywood fantasy, should have injected a little cynicism and certainly some sadness surrounding Kerr’s character.
Watched on Criterion Channel
The Lusty Men
The Sundowners and The Lusty Men are about to expire from the Criterion Collection’s library but the pairing of these films as a double feature is fitting because both push the definition of the Western. The former is set in Australia and follows sheep herders on a light-hearted adventure. The latter is a “modern Western” concerning the current cowboy culture in the rodeo world. And of the two Mitchum films I watched this weekend, The Lusty Men is the stronger piece.
Nicholas Ray’s look at the rodeo sport and lifestyle might be the best ever made (at least of what I’ve seen so far). He captures the glory, the adrenaline, the danger, the addiction to risk, the strain on relationships, and the nomadic nature of this vocation in a film that never feels overlong, over-stuffed, or unrealistic. Though I have never been a big fan of Ray, feeling that his “classics” such as Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar are heavy-handed, he employs a light touch to hard-hitting material with this film. Perhaps he knew the subject was solid enough to just back off and let it play out.
Regardless, the effect is fantastic and Mitchum couldn’t be better as the aging bronc rider. He doesn’t feel like a Hollywood star thrown into the mix, capturing the true internal tone of this character. Sure, the riding isn’t done by the actors but that doesn’t lessen how exhilarating and scary it is, especially for a picture of this time. The ending, which I won’t ruin, is poignant and most importantly, well-earned.
Watched on Criterion Channel.