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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.
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 misanthropic.
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 IS HUD.'
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, Hud rates:
Supplements: none, nada, zilch-o-rama
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2003