Sunday, February 25, 2024

Classic Movie Review: ‘Hud’ – A Cowboy Catharsis

Paul Newman is the titular star of frequent collaborator and Best Director nominee Martin Ritt’s (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) Hud, a bleak contemporary western based on the novel by Larry McMurty. Young nephew Lonnie (Brandon deWilde) both looks up to and has to clean up after his wayward uncle, but Hud’s elderly father Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) must reel in his son and see to the sick cattle on their Texas ranch. Womanizing Hud teases their housekeeper Alma Brown (Patricia Neal) rather than see to their quarantine for foot-and-mouth disease, leading to eye opening pain and bitter truths for the whole family.

After a night of brawls and broken glass, the pink Cadillac is parked by the open white picket fence at 6 a.m. so viewers immediately know Hud pushes the 1963 envelope with seedy innuendo, squealing tires, and recklessness. Vultures are circling over dead cows, too, but Hud doesn’t want to involve a government veterinarian in their business. Family history comes out casually in conversation, feeling more like drunken loose lips than exposition thanks to the incredible script from Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (Norma Rae). Superb dynamics and interplay pepper the rocking on the porch pace while scandalous tension and hog contests distract from the seriousness at hand and parallel Hud’s blasé deflection. Problems also arise mostly at night in private at home, creating a claustrophobic house with incompetent arguments and takeover confrontations. Today the carelessness and drunken assaults may not show much, yet they remain uncomfortable, rough, and disturbing. The vet warns their entire herd is at risk, but Hud only sees scams to be had like cashing his stake in the ranch, passing off sick stock, or selling their land for oil leases. He ignores his family’s animosity while calling foul over their little epidemic in a new re-watch layer of generational divides then and now, social commentary, and Trumpian despicable. According to Hud, this country runs on epidemics, crooked television shows, and income tax finagling because there hasn’t been a saint since Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, Hud’s big talk, shady action, and ruinous touch are no comfort as the bittersweet round ups, wire fences, and quarantine requirements leave the hard working ranchers waiting for the worst. Our characters are well aware that death doesn’t take long, easily plowed over and sprinkled with lime compared to the lifelong effort it takes to grow something of meaning with your bare hands.

We want to justify all the terrible behaviors of our smooth cad because Hud is played by Paul Newman, and Paul Newman would never, really play the bad guy, right? Hud doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s tip toeing through the tulips and blames his nephew when the husband of his latest indiscretion comes home. He hates his old man asking his opinion if he won’t take his advice, and the law is only a lenient guide to whatever angle he has up his sleeve. Hud rides off at every chance, drinking and ditching Lonnie to do the work. Sure, he’ll roll in the mud for the rodeo, but not when it comes to the actual ranching. Hud won’t wait for the quarantine results or any subsequent government handout, blaming the vet for his diagnosis and his weak father for letting it all happen. You have to look out for yourself first, and Hud will use a legalese if he can depose of his father. Though unfazed by death since it happens to everyone, dogs, horses, people, Hud takes out how he really feels on Alma, leaving viewers to wonder how low he’ll go. We want him to learn the err of his ways right up until the final door slam, but Hud shows no interest in redemption. Unfortunately, Best Actress winner Patricia Neal’s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) divorced housekeeper Alma Brown must juggle an old man, a teen boy, and the cowboy who can make you drop your dish towel. She plays poker with the ranch hands and yells when Hud parks in her flower bed, but Alma can’t get the lipstick out of his shirts. He suggests they try her cheap lipstick instead and scratch her itch, but Alma insists she sleeps alone with the door locked. In town, Alma has to chase Hud to make him stop for her, and he won’t open the door or help with the groceries even if she has his two six packs. Alma says his car smells of Chanel No. 5 and she’s heard all the town gossip, so he wants to know what she’s saving herself for because she isn’t getting any younger. Alma scoffs at his drunken, lacking in finesse advances, but he lays on her bead and wonders what else she’s good at besides cooking and cleaning – ruining the simmering subtext with his brutishness.

Hardworking but old and hanging on Best Supporting Actor Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) knows what one sick cow could mean for his entire ranch. Homer doesn’t like disrespecting buzzards because even they have their purpose, and he doesn’t see suspicion everywhere like the unprincipled Hud, who he knows is always trying to pass the buck. Homer’s worn out, tired, and ill after a long day’s ride tending his spread. His old long horns once meant everything to their way of life, and it breaks his heart to bring them in, but Hud can’t be trusted so he’ll do what has to be done himself. Homer wonders where he went wrong with Hud, what he could have done to change him, but it’s Hud’s not giving a damn about anything that makes him ashamed that he’s his son. It’s fascinating to compare Brandon deWilde as the little boy unaware of what’s what in Shane to the rose colored glasses coming off for Lonnie in Hud. Initially, he idolizes Hud and wants to join his nightly adventures, but Hud always leaves him with his lonely little radio. Lonnie eats a lot, always wants dessert, and gets his mouth around a huge burger, but he’s also read the steamy From Here to Eternity twice and doesn’t like Alma knowing what he hides in his sock drawer. At seventeen, Lonnie starts to sleep naked and wonders what Alma wears to bed but Hud encourages him to go for the babes. He thinks Lonnie’s need to really like the girl first makes him an idealist so he gets them in a bar fight. Fortunately, Lonnie prefers going to the movies with his grandpa for the sing a long cartoons, and Lonnie won’t think about his grandfather’s old age. Hud, however, works Lonnie until he passes out after getting kicked by a cow and won’t let him throw up on his good shirt or waste five dollars on a doctor. Lonnie thinks Homer may be too harsh on Hud, but his grandfather lets him come to his own conclusions, and eventually, Lonnie realizes he just can’t stomach Hud.

Perhaps Hud could have been in color, but the crisp black and white silver screen invokes an older, past gritty. The backwoods dusty and dirty has its last hurrah, and even in daylight, the ranch is grim, hot, poor, and shabby. Old trucks, broken fences, empty highways, and tumbleweeds set off the bitter while bleak guitar notes mirror the beautiful but behind the times landscapes, horses, and longhorns. Lighter country music is still sad, and though a happening place at night, Main Street is also quaint – everyone knows each other and a dime on the cafe counter gets you breakfast. Oscar winning black and white cinematography captures the despondent vistas, cattle roundups, and disturbing but necessary slaughter. Danger signs, diegetic radios, and wind fill silent scenes while the upsetting animal sequence is orchestrated with bulldozers and rifles – machinery ending the rural way of life. Editing cuts match the gunfire, creating a harrowing, visceral scene that feels longer than the minute odd it is, a terrible schism amid the otherwise still land. Hud gets me every time, and I knew a pandemic viewing would leave me sobbing like a baby as usual, as great films with excellent, bitter performances are supposed to make you do. Hud’s ne’er do well finale slaps The Hays Code hard, leaving nothing tidy and everyone worse off then when the film started. There’s more to discuss – the racist undertones and recasting of the Alma character, ironic counter culture audiences viewing Hud as a hero, and the seemingly underrated perception of Hud compared to The Hustler. However, this is my favorite Paul Newman film, nay in my mind his best performance, and an opinion of excellence has grown around Hud, a heavy, cathartic viewing experience for any fan of nuanced film.

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