|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Paul Newman and director Martin Ritt had a long run making movies together, a collaboration that helped establish the actor and also gave him his most celebrated role, in 1963's Hud. That was followed up by the fairly embarrassing The Outrage, but the two redeemed themselves with 1967's Hombre, a tough-minded 'new' western that can't be lumped in with other current trends in the genre. It's not a cynical exercise in style like the Euro westerns beginning to flow in from Italy, and it's not a spoof such as Dean Martin and James Coburn were making. And it isn't an elegiac, mythomanic Peckinpah-style picture either. It doesn't play with iconography from John Ford movies.
Hombre is from a novel by Elmore Leonard, whose previous 3:10 to Yuma had been adapted into a superb Glenn Ford-Van Heflin movie a decade before. Leonard is more interested in the interesting ways that characters meet, clash or resolve their differences; his screenplays tend to be about negotiations between strong opponents with opposite goals. The closest parallel might be to the Burt Kennedy / Budd Boetticher westerns of the late 1950s, described by Andrew Sarris as 'floating poker games'.
In 1957 the key subject was Law and Order, but in Hombre the issue has become race. If the film is a new spin on John Ford's Stagecoach, the changes are not pleasant ones. The 'evil banker' is now an amoral Indian agent who has absconded with the food money for an entire reservation. The John Wayne outlaw hero has split into two characters. One is a thoroughly depraved outlaw, and the other an Indian hero so flawless that he would require a native-American equivalent of Sidney Poitier to play him. As the light-skinned and blue eyed Paul Newman is the star, the writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. invent a way for their Indian hero to be a white man.
The Arizona territory could as well be Birmingham Alabama, just after election day. With the coming of the railroad John Russell (Paul Newman) no longer will have a job catching and breaking horses for the stage line. John has lived as an Indian since being captured by them as a child, but Mexican-American friend Mendez (Martin Balsam) urges him to reassert his Anglo identity. A foster father has died, leaving John a boarding house run by Jessie (Diane Cilento). Although no stages are running, the wealthy Indian Agent Favor (Fredric March) and his spoiled wife Audra (Barbara Rush) charter a stage rig from Mendez and his assistant Billy Lee (Peter Lazer). The passengers on it also include John and Jessie, and Billy Lee's young wife Doris (Margaret Blye). At the last minute the thuggish Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) secures himself a seat by threatening a soldier, until he surrenders his ticket.
Jessie has decided to leave town because her lover (also the sheriff) Braden (Cameron Mitchell) won't marry her. She's further disappointed in the men that attract her when John passively allows the swaggering Grimes to have his way, and John also gives in when Audra Favor requests, after learning that he's lived with Indians, that John be made to ride on top of the stagecoach rather than inside with the 'white' passengers.
Then the stage is held up, and all the characters show their true colors. John fights back, and the group goes on the run, on foot, with the bandits closing in. Everybody looks to John Russell to help them survive. He knows he can't trust them to make the right decisions -- or even to not betray each other. His initial response to every problem is unyieldingly brutal -- but logical and sane. Every time John tries to accommodate the 'higher moral values' of his fellow travelers, he gives the advantage to the bandits intent on killing them all.
Even Mad magazine made fun of Paul Newman's blue-eyed Apache Indian, ignoring the detail that the character is a white captive. And Newman makes a great hard-case loner, who lashes out at Indian-baiting villains and dishes out violence with a pragmatic logic that nobody else seems to understand. The humanist Mendez (Balsam's Spanish accent is excellent) has long ago learned to kiss Anglo a** and hasn't a mean bone in his body. Young Billy Lee is okay but just to inexperienced to be of much use. Favor and his wife Audra are as much the enemy as the bandits. Even after Favor demonstrates his willingness to let the others die, and his disinterest in saving his own wife, the group insists that someone must take suicidal risks to save them/her. John gives in when the genuinely honest and tough Jessie volunteers to do the job. If anything, the movie seems a dark fable about how society forces its best and bravest to sacrifice themselves, for sentimental values that more often than not prove baseless.
Hombre is perfectly paced, character-intense fine entertainment. The first scenes must carry an industrial level of exposition, but everything we hears pays off. Elmore Leonard's character dynamics give us surprises in every relationship. The immature Doris, for instance, shows herself a total fool when she teases Grimes, who faux-attacks her just to amuse himself. Audra is officious and insulting but not at all exaggerated; when she's talking gossip with the other women she's actually rather sympathetic. Jessie is the best-quality female in sight, but she also has a habit of challenging the men she likes, in ways that cause them to get in trouble. We hear of a husband she lost, and she certainly had no intuition about the true nature of her lover Braden. And rather than accept John Russell's judgment, she goads him into a very rash decsion.
Nobody's ever going to praise the great Frank Silvera for his work in this film -- he's such a charismatic bandit that we wish he'd change sides. Hombre keeps us guessing and keeps us thinking about human nature, what's righteously good and what's righteously reckless, and to what degree we're our brothers' keepers. It's a great Elmore Leonard adaptation, right up there with 3:10 to Yuma and Jackie Brown.
I guess the packagers decided Paul Newman was the "H" man of gritty westerns ... the ads for Hombre made a big deal of the filmmakers' connection with his earlier Hud.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hombre is a stunningly good rendering of this bright & shiny Fox release. I unfortunately tried to watch terrible grainy pan-scanned copies on old TV had high on their lists for decades. The picture is sharp, as in, really good looking. James Wong Howe's cinematography never resembles the usual "location work / studio fakery / day for night" fakery that goes on with westerns packed with stars; old Fredric March looks so beat and overtaxed out there in the heat, we worry that he might be a heart attack risk when all the passengers must de-coach to hike up a steep grade. Gorgeous Barbara Rush, still a porcelain doll at 40, really seems to be burning up when the bandits stake her out in the hot sun (only her black wig looks a bit false, now and then). Cameraman Howe appears to use some rear projection through a window in the concluding scene, but it's all but invisible. His work gives the show a convincing sense of the dry rocks and dusty roads.
The new commentary with Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo gives a general overview of the film and its actors, going lightly over Martin Ritt's political background. Scrabo adds a number of illuminating comparisons with the book; we find out that Diane Cilento and Cameron Mitchell's characters were invented for the movie, for instance. Hombre was one of the first Fox pictures, which had made anamorphic pictures exclusively in CinemaScope for thirteen years, to use Panavision.
A trailer is also included, as well as Julie Kirgo's informative and thoughtful liner notes. She ID's Hombre as 'revisionist' and even 'existential', and makes a good case for each qualifier.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hombre Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.