Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Hud.

criterion logoPaul Newman is Hud Bannon, the man with the barbed-wire soul, a charismatic hellion tearing through his small, Texas panhandle town in his pink Cadillac and seducing the local housewives.  His reckless and unscrupulous behavior is tolerated by his principled father Homer (Melvyn Douglas) and their weary housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal), and admired by his teenage nephew Lonnie (Brandon deWilde).  When hoof-and-mouth disease threatens their entire herd, a bitter struggle ensues over control of the ranch and their livelihood with Lonnie in the middle.  Garnering 7 Academy Award nominations and wins by actors Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas and cinematographer James Wong Howe, Hud is a beautifully stark depiction of generational conflict and an unforeseen measure of the changing culture in America.

Disc Features:

Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By tells the story of the Bannons’ private grudges and professional adversity from the perspective of Lonnie, teenage grandson to Homer Bannon, patriarch of a cattle ranch, and nephew to Hud, Homer’s son-in-law.  Martin Ritt’s film version of Hud places Lonnie’s uncle (now the son of Homer, rather than his son-in-law) as the central, titular figure, turning the film into an anti-western/domestic drama and participating in the public’s changing taste for anti-heroes fully embraced 4 years later with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  The film portrays Hud’s battle with Homer over control of the family ranch, a multi-faceted contest not merely regarding the land and its diseased cattle, but also over a vision of masculine authority that also impacts upon both Alma, the Bannon’s cook and housekeeper, and Lonnie, a young man who largely abides by Homer’s moral compass but appreciates Hud’s gusto and willingness to pursue his desires.  Ritt and his star Paul Newman had recently co-founded Salem Productions and Hud was their first film for Paramount.  Newman was drawn to Hud’s irredeemable nature, having felt that his roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks, 1962) had been softened, and the film provides Hud with no moral epiphany or transformative romance.  Hud ultimately gets his way, venomously rejecting any guilt over the cost of his success.

Hud was and remains a celebrated film with a prestigious pedigree.  Newman’s method-acted Hud Bannon (having worked as a ranch hand on location in Texas for preparation) is a seedy mix of lust and ingratitude, while Melvyn Douglas’ Oscar-winning Homer is rooted in a laconic, but assured morality.  Patricia Neal nearly steals the film as the worldly and intuitive Alma, her small role an Oscar-winner also.  Brandon deWilde fascinates, having grown from the hero-worshiping boy in Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to the lout-admiring teen in Hud.  James Wong Howe’s Oscar-winning cinematography gives Hud a starkly bleak atmosphere that is sun-baked and hard-shadowed.  The film even claims a score from composer Elmer Bernstein, costumes by Edith Head, process photography by Farciot Edouart, and a screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.  Critics lauded Hud for its acting, its production, and its portrayal of declining American values and the avaricious rise of materialism and greed, but, more than anything, Hud is notable for its unexpected reception by audiences (particularly young ones) who embraced the title character despite his immorality, his selfishness, and his remorselessness.  Ritt and Newman imagined Hud in the mould Clark Gable’s characters of the ’30s, where, in Ritts words, “For the first half of the picture, he’s a prick, and then some lady, or Spencer Tracy, or God, converts him in the second half,” but Hud has no such reversal and, as such, was something “that had not yet existed in American films.”  Newman felt the character was misunderstood as “the whole purpose was to present someone who had all the graces on which there is such a big premium in the US – some kind of external attractiveness, a guy who is great with the girls, a good boozer – but, nevertheless, a man with a tragic flaw.”  Ritt seems to have acknowledged being behind the curve of the demographic and cultural changes at work, noting, “I kept getting mail telling me what a great guy Hud was and what a schmuck the old man was, and the kid was gay.  What nobody realized was that Haight-Ashbury was just around the corner, and there’s no way of topping history.  What nobody realized was that kids were that cynical.”

In her essay “Hud, Deep in the Divided Heart of Hollywood,” Pauline Kael suggests that Hud is a case of the audience knowing the film better than its makers.  To her sensibility, young spectators identified with Hud because he acknowledged the corruption at work in the world and refused to take less so Homer could maintain his principled blind eye.  Moreover, Kael holds that audiences saw through the hypocrisy of a major film studio and its handsome, male star preaching to them about the decline of moral virtues and the rise of rapacious consumerism.  Few other critics seem to have attempted to explain this disjunction between authorial intent and audience reception and much of what Kael proposes rings true, however it speaks of the film in broad, political terms.  A closer reading suggests that the film’s narrative offers footing for a sympathetic approach to Hud.  Consider the confrontation between Hud and Homer after Hud takes Lonnie out carousing.  It has just been established that Hud feels responsibility for the death of his brother (Lonnie’s father).  When Hud finally confronts Homer about his unwillingness to forgive him for his brother’s death, Homer responds that his resentment manifested long before that and that his sourness from Hud never giving “a damn” about anyone.  The statement is a revelation to Hud, but he calcifies in the moment, responding, “My momma loved me, but she died.”  The exchange seems intended to suggest that Hud’s self-centred attitude is the basis of Homer’s righteous ire and that Hud’s attitude is emblematic of the erosion of the national character, as Homer states, “Little by little, the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”  Homer’s attitude is rooted in the nostalgia of a simpler age when men were honourable and the young respected their elders (and where carpetbaggers and robber barons presumably didn’t exist, let alone lead his nation).  Hud obviously holds the deaths of his brother and mother close, denying Homer’s assertion that Hud cares about nothing.  It should be asked what kind of father is Homer when his son misapprehends his disdain?  What good is his moral code if it can’t save Hud?  What value has a moral code when it is used by one generation to complain about the next, rather than to improve it?  Hud may still be the film’s heel, a “pure bastard” in the words of the screenwriters, but his character did not develop in isolation from the rest of his environment.  We might also ask why Homer repeatedly seeks Hud’s opinion on the dead cow only to reject it, if not to demonstrate his disappointment in his son?  Frank and Ravetch acknowledge that “growing up in the home of a man like Homer Bannon might seriously damage a young man like Hud.”  Homer may be the film’s voice of reason and morality, but the selected directions of his values and compassion and his lack of compromise make him an equal author of Hud’s villainy and the Bannons’ tragedy.

Mike White Hud PosterHud would expand the Criterion Collection in numerous ways, increasing representation of Paul Newman, Martin Ritt, James Wong Howe, and Elmer Bernstein, all underrepresented in the Collection presently.  Perhaps more significantly, Hud might be seen as a progenitor to the New American Cinema that would revolutionize film only a few years later.  We’re particularly fond of Mike White’s poster for Hud – big, bold, and pink, just like Hud’s Cadillac.  Seeing a version of that poster on a Criterion case would be unlike anything currently in the Collection and the pink colour, carried over to booklet and disc designs, would be just the contrast to the western setting that Criterion often welcomes, much as it did with its packaging treatment for Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939).

Credits:  A variety of sources were consulted in preparing this post, most of which ended up being transformed into special features for the imagined edition of Hud.  One significant exception is the wealth of material available on the TCM website and prepared by Rob Nixon.  Filipino film critic Michael Mirasol has gained prominence as a Roger Ebert correspondent and his video essay below made him an appealing interviewee on the topic of Hud.  The Hollywood and the Stars episode attends to Paul Newman on the set of Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964) and addresses their recent success on Hud, making the television program a relevant addition to these special features.  The tour of Claude, Texas is entirely imagined, while An Act of Love: The Patricia Neal Story is a well-regarded dramatization of Neal’s marriage to Roald Dahl and her long recovery from a near-fatal stroke that required she learn to walk and speak once again.  Neal’s life was full of tragedy and triumph and is deserving of elaboration in a Criterion edition of Hud.  Essay contributions by Australian film critic Margaret Pomeranz and MoMA film curator Charles Silver are based on their online discussions of the film wherein Pomeranz calls Hud a “classic” and Silver suggests the film anticipates Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) by nearly a decade.  Kael’s essay is full of insights that extend beyond the usual critical fawning, even if it seems an apologist to Hud’s failed rape of Alma, and Baer’s interview with the screenwriters provides an excellent survey of the film’s production and an interesting discussion about the popularity of the Hud character.

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