Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hud is definitely at the top of the list of classic 'modern' Westerns. A wide spectrum of talent
came together for this high-end studio film and the result is marvelous, from the B&W Panavision
photography to details like the dust on main street and the moths bothering Patricia Neal's
work in the Bannon ranch kitchen.
The script is as smart as a button and profound without being preachy. It's a
moralistic story that doesn't pretend that every situation can turn out well. Everyone remembers
Paul Newman's famous line, "Kid, there's so much crap in the world that you're going to get into
it sooner or later." Fine as it is, it's topped by Melvyn Douglas'es assertion that "The shape of
the country changes depending on the men we believe in." Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country
from the same year inaugurated the idea that the passing of the old West buried a lot of good
frontier qualities; Hud suggests that the collective American character is
already turning greedy and heartless.
The Bannon ranch is in a bad way because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease
that may force patriarch Homer (Melvyn Douglas) to destroy his entire herd. Loyal grandson Lonnie
(Brandon de Wilde) is swayed by the swaggering, womanizing ways of his Uncle Hud (Paul Newman), who'd
be perfectly content to sell off the suspicious herd before it can be condemned. Grandpa Homer
doesn't seem to be holding up well under the pressure, while family housekeeper Alma (Patricia
Neal) works overtime to fend off Hud's drunken advances.
Martin Ritt was a hit and miss director for whom the magic hit more often than not. When he latched
onto a creative association with actors like Paul Newman, he was able to make a lot of good pictures. Everything
about his earlier
The Long Hot Summer is a little
overbaked, including stud du jour Newman, but by the time of Hud, Newman had found his
essential character and had stopped being a second-hand James Dean.
All four leads are remarkable, actually; old-time smoothie
Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) makes an excellent rancher approaching his dotage. After almost ten
years off, the actor
came back in the early 60s with great parts in movies like this one, Billy Budd and
The Americanization of Emily. Patricia Neal made precious few pictures but hardly ever a
bad one. Warner's didn't know what to do with her, but she was sensual dynamite in pix like
The Fountainhead, The Breaking Point and even
The Day the Earth Stood Still. She
had a tough knowing smile that could express virtue or sinful understanding with equal sincerity.
She always cut right
through the screen and comes out of Hud with the single most impressive performance. There's
probably no other single film that brings out more subtle angles in the situation of an experienced
woman harassed by an experienced womanizer who means business.
Brandon de Wilde has grown up into an entirely different animal than the wide-eyed little kid in
Shane nine years earlier. He's the one with a connection to a classic Western and through him
we see Homer's old-time ethics skipping a generation ... he's probably more of a straight shooter than
his grandfather was. Uncle Hud's wild lifestyle sleeping with every unattended wife in
town has its glamor, but Lonnie has character that keeps Hud from turning wholly
Ritt, James Wong Howe or somebody on the set really knew how to photograph Western exteriors. The
dusty trails, lonely roads and pitiful town streets look bleak, but not oppressive as they
were in Bogdanovich's McMurtry adaptation The Last Picture Show. Almost the only gunplay
is when Hud tries to scare off some pesky buzzards, and even then he's got his dad Homer reminding
him that nobody breaks the law on his ranch. And the second instance is a sickening kill-off of the
living & breathing animals that represent Grandpa Bannon's life and achievement.
McMurtry, Ravetch and Frank Jr's update of Western morality isn't a defined clash between right and
wrong. Instead, it's a competition. Some behave honorably and make sacrifices, while others want their
rewards and screw the rest. Hud and Homer square off on the issues continually, and
the caliber of the writing is such that none of it rings false. We listen in rapt attention, watching
how the discussion plays to the impressionable Lonnie.
Lonnie would be tempted to emulate his uncle, but he's just plain too
nice a guy. He's too nice to hold a grudge, and too nice to be secretive about his feelings for the
Bannon's admittedly frisky housekeeper. Alma is fast with a sly look but responds cautiously
when handed a provocative line: "What else are you good at?" Hud asks, when cooking and cleaning have
already been accounted for. "Taking care of myself," she replies, with the unstated assurance that she's
heard everything he's saying many a time before. For Hud, Alma's the one that got away, but the sad
thing is that she may be heading for some new kind of oblivion. If she doesn't land 'lucky, with
just the right people,' there's no telling what might happen to her.
Hud is a genuine Texas heel, and the fact that he's mostly right doesn't change his character. Pops
did make a dumb mistake by buying those infected Mexican cattle, something he might not have done
as a younger rancher. Testing the land for oil is a terrific idea; Grandpa's inability to change
isn't good for what's left of his family.
Hud has the style, but he's got a big hole in him where companionship should
be. He has maybe a day or two of chummy bonding with Lonnie, and then he's isolated again. No wonder
he grabs his jollies where he can find them. He's a lout, taking the easy female pickings attracted
by his muscles and curly hair. He sullies himself when he molests Alma,
and he knows it. Granpa crucifies Hud with the verdict that his son just plain doesn't give a damn, and
it's true. Like much of the rest of the American spirit, Hud no longer cares what he's doing or who he
does it to, just so long as the profit is still there and there's beer in the fridge.
Hud is a keeper. Other good modern Westerns are too lightweight (The Rounders) or try
to get deep dish with allegories about Freedom versus semi-trucks transporting toilets (Lonely
are Brave). The drama clicks here better than it does in similarly-themed corn like Minnelli's
Home from the Hill. Paul Newman found his iconic image in this film, the one that Joe Buck pins to
his wall as a guiding light in Midnight Cowboy. Newman and Ritt followed Hud with
a real stinker, The Outrage, but it doesn't matter. Make something as good as Hud,
and you can be forgiven almost anything.
Paramount's DVD of Hud sports a gorgeous transfer that brings out every B&W nuance of James
Wong Howe's horizontal stretch of West Texas. The sound is also as clear as a bell - no complaints
there whatsoever. I saw Hud at least three times pan-scanned on TV before I found out how
impressive it was at a museum showing; this DVD recreates the big screen experience with ease.
Such a landmark of a film inspires commentary and docu ideas from four directions at
once. It got nominated for seven Oscars and won three, with the deserving Ms. Neal at the top of
the list. The disc has no extras at all, nothing, so we don't get to learn about Martin Ritt's slow
climb back from
the Blacklist, which had him profiting in the long run by teaching actors like Paul Newman in New
York. Paramount must have had difficulties retaining words like 'bitch' and 'crap' in their
film, in the tender censorship year of 1962.
But the DVD transfer is heaven-sent, so Hud still gets high marks for delivering the goods. The
cover art proclaims 'PAUL NEWMAN HUD', when we all remember the posters actually read PAUL NEWMAN
Genre fans will enjoy seeing horror regs John Ashley and Yvette Vickers in small but visible roles.
Whit Bissell is the county vet with the 'cruddy job', but he's too well known across the spectrum
to be identified mainly as a genre figure.
I'll never forget Mad Magazine's hilarious comic adaptation of Hud which played up Paul
Newman as the lowest scum on the face of the Earth, but still everyone's favorite anti-hero. In
the cattle pit scene, Pa sees Hud crying and is moved to find that even a scoundrel can have
strong emotions over such a depressing situation. Hud replies that he's only crying because shooting
the steers ruins a perfectly fine opportunity to bury them alive! When Mad was on target,
it was really on target.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: none, nada, zilch-o-rama
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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