Any film with a title as cryptic and ugly-sounding as Hud better have more to recommend it than its name. So, take it from me, Hud, which came to the Paramount and the Coronet yesterday, does have more—so much more, in every aspect—that it shapes up now as this year’s most powerful film.
This is a daring endorsement for a picture in which the principal character is a heel and the setting is the Texas cow country that we’ve seen a thousand times (or more) in films. But the heel in this instance is different. He’s more than a stock Western brute, banging the bar for red-eye and sneaking out to steal cattle in the dark.
This heel, named Hud, is a rancher who is fully and foully diseased with all the germs of materialism that are infecting and sickening modern man. He is a nineteen-sixties specimen of the I’m-gonna-get-mine breed—the selfish, snarling smoothie who doesn’t give a hoot for anyone else.
And the place where he lives is not just Texas. It is the whole of our country today. It is the soil in which grows a gimcrack culture that nurtures indulgence and greed.
Here is the essence of this picture, which Martin Ritt and Irving Ravetch have produced, and Mr. Ritt has directed in a powerfully realistic style. While it looks like a modern Western, and is an outdoor drama, indeed, Hud is as wide and profound a contemplation of the human condition as one of the New England plays of Eugene O’Neill.
As a matter of fact, the structure of it is close to the spare and simple lines of one of those great O’Neill dramas—say, Desire Under the Elms. For the human elements are simply Hud, the focal character, with his aging father, a firm and high-principled cattleman, on one hand, and Hud’s seventeen-year-old nephew, a still-growing and impressionable boy, on the other. The conflict is simply a matter of determining which older man will inspire the boy. Will it be the grandfather with his fine traditions or the uncle with his crudities and greed?
It would not be proper to tell which influence prevails. Nor is that answer essential to the clarification of this film. The striking, important thing about it is the clarity with which it unreels. The sureness and integrity of it are as crystal-clear as the plot is spare.
Mr. Ritt, working from an excellent screenplay that Mr. Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., wrote from a novel by Larry McMurtry, has caught the whole raw-boned atmosphere of a land and environment lying between nature and cheap urbanity, between the vastness of yesterday’s open country and the closeness of the claptrap of tomorrow. And with a fine cast of performers, he has people who behave and talk so truly that it is hard to shake them out of your mind.
Paul Newman as Hud is tremendous—a potent, voracious man, restless with all his crude ambitions, arrogant with his contempt, and churned up inside with all the meanness and misgivings of himself.
And Melvyn Douglas is magnificent as the aging cattleman who finds his own son an abomination and disgrace to his country and home. It is Mr. Douglas’s performance in the great key scene of the film, a scene in which his entire herd of cattle is deliberately and dutifully destroyed at the order of government agents because it is infected with foot-and-mouth disease, that helps fill the screen with an emotion that I’ve seldom felt from any film. It brings the theme of infection and destruction into focus with dazzling clarity.
As the young fellow, Brandon de Wilde is eloquent of clean, modern youth—naive, sensitive, stalwart, wanting so much to be grown-up. And Patricia Neal is brilliant as the lonely housekeeper for these men. She is a rangy, hard-bitten slattern with a heart and a dignity of her own.
There is also much else that is excellent: the camerawork of James Wong Howe, the poignant musical score of Elmer Bernstein, the insinuating use of natural sounds. They merge in an achievement that should be honored as a whole.
In spite of the title, Hud has it. That’s all you have to know.
Directed by Martin Ritt; written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., based on the novel Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry; cinematographer, James Wong Howe; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Elmer Bernstein; art designers, Hal Pereira and Tambi Larsen; produced by Mr. Ritt and Mr. Ravetch; released by Paramount Pictures. Black and white. Running time: 112 minutes.
With: Paul Newman (Hud Bannon), Melvyn Douglas (Homer Bannon), Patricia Neal (Alma), Brandon de Wilde (Lon Bannon), John Ashley (Hermy), and Whit Bissell (Burris).