"Chicken today, feathers tomorrow," the independent artistís existence. Nicholas Ray has a beautiful beginning, roughly in five swift strokes: The Brahman bull lumbers into the rodeo corral and snorts straight into the camera, which tilts up to reveal Robert Mitchum about to mount the beast, five seconds later heís trampled in the dirt; dissolve to fanfare and dispersing crowds; dissolve to the discarded man limping out of the arena, alone with the trash and dust all around. Where have all the cowboys gone? Into the crawlspace under the dilapidated ranch, "looking for something I thought Iíd lost." (Wenders re-creates the moment almost verbatim in Kings of the Road.) Sore after two decades on the saddle, the wanderer is ready for a home, possibly the one belonging to the eager farmhand (Arthur Kennedy) with his own dreams of glory. The veteran turns mentor against the wishes of the greenhornís wife (Susan Hayward), "a decent, steady life" is her goal, on the road the three of them go. (A marvelous shot: Hayward curled up asleep in the back of their station wagon, suddenly springing awake to snarl at the two clods leering at her.) The western as tin-can spectacle for an unsteady postwar nation, the tender whittling down of its macho bluster, pot roast in trailer parks and buried toy pistols. "A world full of prizes" for "a bunch of crazy men paying for the privilege of getting themselves killed." Ray dismantles the genreís iconography with salt and rue, his contrasts are always surprising: The nomadís beloved "freedom" is really an unending cycle of bucking contests, as locked-in as cars in a racetrack, while the wifeís insistent domesticity exudes its own perverse fire. (Mitchum and Kennedy's fluctuating bromance is briefly mirrored by Haywardís flirtation with Maria Hartís scrappy trick-shooter, an early flash of Johnny Guitar.) A key American vision, with Rayís sense of failure and transience and grace pulled together into Mitchumís wink of soulful nonchalance. Peckinpah in Junior Bonner takes up the analysis. Cinematography by Lee Garmes. With Arthur Hunnicutt, Frank Faylen, Walter Coy, Carol Nugent, Lorna Thayer, and Burt Mustin. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce