Hud (1963) explores the brazen world of American egocentrism

Martin Ritt’s adaptation of Larry McMurty’s 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By is a nearly perfect adaptation that creates an overwhelmingly powerful acting vehicle for an all-time cast. Starting with Paul Newman’s best performance, bar none, his womanizing, apathetic and lost Hud paints a picture of disturbing ambivalence. Next is the fantastic Patricia Neal (Alma) who adds a unique dynamic to the revisionist western plot and a feminine character that exposes these misunderstood family dynamics for something sinister. Lastly is Melvyn Douglas (Homer), the patriarch of the ranch with olden moral stringency, facing an anti-hero figure of Hud, who holds a painfully difficult place in his heart.

Hud is such a wonderfully deep character. I don’t see him as purely evil, as the others recognize in him. His impurity stems from his unloving father and the blame that’s placed on him for the tragedy of his older brother. He’s an empathetic character with his loneliness and entrapment in this life that doesn’t work for him, his father, or Lonnie (Brandon DeWilde), his nephew, or Alma. Alma especially has an abusive relationship with Hud, but still sees the good in him despite it all. In her final scene in the bus stop, it’s such a piercing piece of dialogue that cuts the wasted potential of Hud and growing up in this small minded rural town.

“You’re the one that got away”

Hud, Paul Newman

It all turns sideways when Homer’s beloved grazing cattle contract a disease that culminates in the beyond horrifying and traumatic slaughter scene that breaks Homer’s heart. Martin Ritt handles these scenes wonderfully, pointing to the immense sadness and loss of meaning that hits Homer, compounded by Hud’s ambivalence. The scene drives him to surrender his life, which in turn kills the childlike sensibilities of Lonnie and looks at Hud as a toxic force in his life.

The Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. screenplay is a marvel. It condenses the dense character pieces into easily understood, expressive pieces of art. The onus of the character detail is found in the physicality of the performances, as Newman boldly paints his emotions on his sleeve while desperately keeping up the facade of contradiction as he yearns for connection. He cares so much about his father’s approval, but takes those messy feelings and channels them in the most destructive way possible. It again culminates in the attempted rape scene where Hud loses control and shows the disgusting behavior of the Texas culture and the meekness of woman in this man’s world.

The Mythos of the rancher

Outside of the phenomenal world building in the script, the James Wong Howe cinematography is immaculate. The deep-focus shots, keeping full frame in focus beyond and below the horizon, shows these characters in the broad landscape of Texas and shown to be small. Hud, as a character, shouts as if his ambitions are great but he walks along a distant ranch that goes on for acres, trapping him in the hell of his own thoughts and decisions. The emotion and emptiness is shown in Howe’s work and speaks in grand gestures about individual characters. Truly, some of the most compelling use of focus to tell a deeply personal character story.

Here’s an American story that explores the mythos of the west and the passing from one generation to the ambivalent next. Watching Homer grapple with Hud’s development, seeing all his values being devalued through his action and inaction. It’s two characters that can’t coexist and see the worst in one another. It’s not an American western focused on the spirit or strength, but the opposite of these ideas. Paul Newman and this cast being the perfect vehicle to bring out the passion and complexity in these portrayals. In this light, it’s fundamentally American and speaks to the changing landscape of the world relevant to the contemporary.

Unbelievable performance piece, with one of my favorite scripts, cinematography, and editing. It’s an excellent film brought together through Ritt’s vision that plays off expectations in proactive yet emotional resonant and meaningful ways.


★★★★★ / Out of 5★s (94)

(96-97-95-95-95-96-92-93-94-90-87-89-94-95: 93.42)

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