Hombre takes us to an Old West just past its romantic prime, when the defeated Native Americans had been herded onto reservations, and the stagecoach lines were dying out in the prospect of the imminent coming of the railroad. Here we find John Russell (Paul Newman), who, having been raised by Apaches, finds himself on the borderline between two worlds when he inherits a boarding house from his adoptive white father.
Watching Hombre is a bit like wandering around in back-country hills. You may go up, or down, and find an interesting view or two along the way, but you don't really end up anywhere in particular. Hombre is a movie that doesn't seem to know where it's heading. At various points in the movie, I thought that the story was developing in a certain direction, only to have it move to something else. Unexpected turns are certainly a good thing in a film, but what Hombre has feels more like a lack of focus. Or, at any rate, a failure to communicate the true focus of the film to the viewer. I suspect that director Martin Ritt did indeed have an idea that he wanted to convey, but everything in the film is so understated, including Newman's performance, that the film ends up without a real backbone.
Newman is a little too good at portraying his character as a silent enigma. He says little and generally keeps an impassive expression; this is all very much in character for this figure who was raised by Apaches and has no desire to share his thoughts with his fellow travelers...but it means that the viewer, like the other characters, is kept out in the dark. Without any insight into his motivations, Russell is hard to empathize with; how can we hope that his plans will work out, if we haven't the foggiest idea what his plans are?
It seems to me that director Ritt is looking to the viewer to fill in the gaps, to bring the characters to life as icons of the Old West: the Mexican, the dishonest rich white man, the feisty working woman on her own, the green boy, the elegant wife. All of them remain, though, like actors who have just been cast in their roles, waiting for the scene that will allow them to express themselves; in the course of the film, they never develop into characters who mean anything.
The ending is probably the weakest part of the film. Just when we are starting perhaps to see a few glimmers of motivation in Newman's character, an unexpected event comes up out of the blue and blindsides us, and the movie is over. Again, unexpected turns of the plot are generally a good thing... when those turns make sense and further the development of the story, the characters, or the theme of the film. The ending of Hombre does not seem to do any of those things, leaving me to wonder how much of the film might have been left on the cutting room floor, or in the mind of the director.
So far I've expressed mostly dissatisfaction with Hombre, which isn't quite a fair estimation of the film. Hombre kept me watching, curious to see where it was going, interested in the figure of John Russell despite not understanding his motivations. The setting has a rugged interest to it, as this is no idealized Old West; it's a hard place and a hard life, and most of the characters are looking for escape of some form or other. The cinematography and art direction capture the dusty, desolate tenor of this setting with stony desert vistas, abandoned, half-ruined buildings, and a dusty color palette of grays, browns, and tans. So all in all, there's something there in Hombre that made it worth watching; but in my estimation it's not developed enough to take the film where it needs to go.
Fox's presentation of Hombre gives the film a pretty fair treatment. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with anamorphic enhancement. There's some edge enhancement present, but other than that, the image is clean and attractive. Colors are a bit on the muted side, probably mostly due to the subdued color palette of the film as a whole. All in all, it's a quite good-looking image for this 1967 film.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is the weakest part of the package. On the bright side, the sound is fairly clean, with no distortion or hissing, and with accurate-sounding dialogue. However, dialogue is muffled throughout, making it easy to miss words or whole lines of conversation at many points in the film. Additionally, the environmental effects portion of the soundtrack is frequently out of balance with the dialogue portion; in one instance, the crunching of biscuits is extremely loud, drowning out another character's conversation.
Hombre is a fairly basic DVD offering: it has a stills gallery and a set of trailers that includes trailers for Hombre itself and for several other Newman films.
Hombre ends up being one of the great mass of reasonably watchable films that don't quite rise to the next level. Newman makes the film at least worth watching, and many aspects of it are well-crafted, but it lacks a certain spark necessary to bring it to life. It's worth a rental.