Hud (1963) *****
Directed by Martin Ritt
After watching Hud on Turner Classic Movies, I heard Robert Osborne, who would get my vote if he ran for president, talk about the frustration both Paul Newman and director Martin Ritt felt once the character of Hud Bannon became an anti-hero instead of an all out villain. I called Paul Newman the “king of on screen coolness” in my tribute post to him, and I think many would agree with the appropriateness of that title. It’s because of Newman’s charm and appeal that filmgoers refused to despise Hud and instead found much to admire amid the character’s many flaws. It was interesting for me to hear about this ironic affection, and it got me thinking about my own ultimate judgment of Hud himself.
Well, before I get to that, let me first say that my judgment regarding the film Hud is that it’s a masterpiece! Not only is it a breathtaking exploration into good and evil, but it’s also a glorious example of a great western! This film, which Ritt rightly chose to shoot in black and white, has a feel about it as if it may have been made in the 1940’s. Yet, intermingled within its nostalgic aura, Hud is also a movie that captures the cultural transformations which the sixties brought into the American consciousness. Another great film, The Last Picture Show, similarly attempts to show the tension between two conflicting realities forced to coexist together. That film contrasts the sad peacefulness of an old
It may seem like both philosophies are valid and acceptable, until we begin to see that Hud’s refusal to tow the line comes from a deep rooted cynicism which most likely began when his recklessness resulted in the death of his brother/Lonnie’s father when Lonnie was just a baby. Lonnie is the seventeen year old boy mentioned above, and he’s played by Brandon de Wilde, who looks remarkably like a seventeen year old version of that kid from Shane. I crack myself up! Anyway, Hud is clearly adopting a dangerous nihilistic worldview, which obviously can’t be good for a boy who still embraces the idealistic optimism of youth, which, while not always accurate, does make Lonnie strive to be respectable and decent. If you believe that there’s no ultimate virtue in decency and respectability, like Hud, then you’re going to grow up to be the kind of 34 year old who breaks windows in bar fights, hires a lawyer in order to forcibly remove his father from his ranch and attempts to rape a housekeeper who doesn’t immediately accept his sexual advances.
Of course, there’s a downside to being so relentlessly moral like Homer, played by the great Melvin Douglass who won an Oscar for his brilliant performance. It’s because of his naivety that his entire herd of cattle may have been infected with foot and mouth disease which can be traced back to his recent purchase of cheap Mexican cattle. If the government determines that his cattle are in fact diseased, it would require all of his animals to be killed. If Hud had his way, he wouldn’t have reported the first dead cow to the government to begin with, thus risking a catastrophic nationwide outbreak. If Lonnie were to look at the situation from Hud’s perspective, then he’d see that Homer dug his own grave, potentially losing everything he worked so hard for because of his incessant, irrational need to always do the “right thing.”
Lonnie witnesses severe arguments between his uncle and his grandfather, and as the film progresses, it’s clear that he’s ultimately going to be forced to choose which hero he wants to be like. Hud cares for Lonnie as much as a man like him can care for someone, but he obviously values his own pleasure over Lonnie’s well-being. This is seen clearly when, in a drunken state, Hud forces his way into their housekeeper’s room in order to try and rape her. Patricia Neal won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alma the housekeeper. Lonnie saves
Paul Newman is absolutely perfect as Hud, commanding the screen with a presence equal to John Wayne. Not once do you question why Lonnie admires him so much. With a less charismatic actor, Hud may have been unlikable from the beginning. Come to think of it, a different actor probably wouldn’t have caused the irony mentioned at the beginning of this review. Hud is a louse, through and through, and because of this, I agree with the disapproval that Newman and Ritt felt regarding the character’s appeal. Newman obviously didn’t realize his own allure. Had a lesser talent than Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar that year, I would be outraged by the fact that Newman didn’t prevail.
Douglass and Neal clearly help make this film as great as it is. Yet, the person who deserves more credit for his work in Hud is Brandon de Wilde, who was nineteen when this movie was released. Tragically, de Wilde was killed in a car crash in 1972 at the age of thirty years old. He will always be known as the impossibly cute blond boy who yells three of the most classic words in film history, “Shane! Come back!” However, I think it’s also appropriate to remember the fine work he did as Lonnie in Hud. Again, had a less talented actor played his role, then Lonnie may have come across feeble and irritating. Instead, Lonnie emerges as a young man that deserves to be admired, thanks to de Wilde’s characterization.
Hud was a smash hit, probably because of Newman more than anything else. It’s refreshing to see a movie as smart and insightful as Hud connecting to audiences at large. Too bad many left this film with an unintended and in my opinion inappropriate idolization of this film’s title character. Not only does this misguided fondness speak volumes about Newman’s on screen persona, but it also adds another interesting layer to this truly superb western.