Synopsis: Self-confessed ruthless jerk Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) spends his nights brawling in bars and sleeping with the women (married and unmarried alike) of his small Texas town, and his days avoiding the responsibilities designated to him by his ranch-owning father Homer (Melvyn Douglas). He also unwillingly takes on the function of role model to teenage nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), who is finally coming of age and trying to decide what kind of man he wants to be: a principled cowboy like Homer, or a pleasure-seeking ladies’ man like Hud? Hud spends his remaining free time trying to get under the skin of world-weary housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal), who seems to be the only woman in town immune to his charms. But the brewing conflict between Homer and Hud comes to a head when the local veterinarian (Whit Bissell) delivers bad news about the family’s cattle herd. With pressure from Hud to sell the infected herd off to unsuspecting neighbors, will Homer be able to maintain his lifelong dedication to stoic morality – even if it means losing everything he’s worked for?
I already gushed about Hud in my review of Hombre (1967), the last of three collaborations between director Martin Ritt, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and star Paul Newman. Hud was the first movie where these three great artists came together, and while I haven’t seen their second film (1964’s The Outrage, a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon), I’m willing to bet Hud is the best of the bunch. Then again, I have a hard time coming up with any film that is better directed, better filmed, or better acted than Hud. It’s a cinematic perfect storm.
It’s actually sort of funny that I love Hud as much as I do, because the synopsis makes it sound like exactly the kind of movie I usually loathe. Western film about cattle ranching; main character is a straight white guy who’s a selfish bastard but whom the audience is expected to love because he’s “charming;” with a little bit of sexual assault and animal abuse thrown in for good measure. And yet it’s so much more complex than that. There’s so much more depth, so much more emotion to the story than mere words can convey. It literally has to be seen to be believed. It just goes to show that good filmmaking is good filmmaking no matter what the subject matter; a skilled director can take a story about sick cattle and turn it into an emotional drama gripping enough to get it nominated for seven Academy Awards.
I’m oversimplifying the story to make a point; Hud really isn’t about the cattle. It’s about the father, Homer Bannon, who represents the old cowboy Hero, the strong, silent type who follows the law of the land and who believes above all else in the value of hard work and patience; and the son, Hud Bannon, the new cowboy Antihero, who believes in taking what he wants, living his life for momentary earthly pleasures, and not owing anything to anybody but himself. Caught in the middle between these two headstrong dynamos is Lonnie Bannon, the grandson/nephew, growing up without a father and desperate for a guiding light to show him the path to success and happiness. Should he follow Homer, whose lifelong dedication to honesty and simplicity has left him ineffectual and on the verge of losing his livelihood? Or should he follow Hud, whose selfish way of life and complete lack of empathy have gotten him the life he wants whilst devastating everyone he knows in his wake?
You’re not supposed to like Hud. Not even straight white guys are supposed to sympathize with Hud. He’s a Jerk and he doesn’t deny being a Jerk. His character is compelling enough to keep you watching; his dialogue is incredibly sharp and well-written, and he’s played by Paul Newman, so he’s pretty easy on the eyes. But your sympathies are always clearly weighted towards Homer, especially as Hud just keeps adding more and more despicable acts to his repertoire. That blows the whole “he’s a jerk, but a LOVABLE jerk” assumption right out of the water. But you can definitely see why Hud’s way of life would seem attractive to a teenage boy who’s transitioning from being told what to do into making decisions for himself. It’s almost a horror movie in that respect. “No Lonnie! DON’T LISTEN TO THAT GUY!”
While Lonnie elicits the protective instincts of the audience, the conflict between Hud and Homer is the most compelling relationship in the film – mostly because, while their motivations seem to be at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, they are fundamentally the same. They’re both hard-headed and tough as nails, but they’re also both wounded characters. In the fleeting moments when Hud speaks of his dead brother, you can hear the love and admiration in his voice; he’s cared about someone before and all it got him was pain, so he’s grown his thick shell to protect himself from getting hurt again. Hud can’t care, because if Hud did care he would simply be too devastated to go on functioning. Homer is also wounded by the loss of his son, but also at having raised such an outright monster as Hud; for someone for whom values and tradition are so intrinsic to their entire philosophy, imagine how painful it must be for Homer’s own flesh-and-blood heir to turn a deaf ear to his treasured wisdom. Lonnie is Homer’s only chance to see his legacy continue, which brings him into even further conflict with Hud over the boy’s upbringing. Hud has no desire to be a role model to Lonnie, but in order to steer Lonnie in the right direction he’d have to both admit his own unhappiness and show deference to his father – two things Hud cannot do without shattering his entire persona.
And then… there’s Patricia Neal. Neal won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this film, despite very little screen time; besides the obvious reasoning that she’s the only girl in the whole damn movie, she also really and truly does knock it out of the park, in a big big way. In fact, this movie alone earned Neal a spot in my short list of Favorite Actresses. (Weird fact: I had actually officially declared to myself that Patricia Neal was my second-favorite living actress [after Joanne Woodward] mere hours before her death was announced. Tragic!) Neal’s character Alma provides a foil for Hud and saves the whole thing from being a big ol’ misogynistic mess. Out of all the ladies in town, Alma is the one female who doesn’t fall for Hud’s sexy-bastard act. This terrifies Hud, as it proves that his way of life can’t possibly sustain him forever. It also, of course, transforms Alma into the one woman he desires the most. Conflict ensues. Neal’s nuanced performance of a disenchanted housekeeper who’s been around the block a few too many times is a beautiful study in subtlety. She’s similar to Hud in a way; she puts up a tough facade to hide the fact that she’s hurting inside. When the conflict at home comes to a head, she can find no other solution than to run away from it and start over again somewhere else. It makes you wonder just how long Alma has been running.
There’s so much more I could say about this film. The cinematography, as always with Howe, is completely stunning: the wide expanses of Texas ranch land that are so emblematic of the Western genre here serve to isolate the characters and pull both their external and internal conflicts into sharp focus, an effect that is greatly aided by the use of black and white film. There’s one scene involving the cattle which is so completely perfect as to render it unforgettable; a sequence that lasts less than five minutes will grow in your memory to seem relentless, interminable, unending, just because of the taut emotions and guttural sorrow oozing from the screen. (I don’t want to give away the details for fear of spoiling the film, but you’ll know it when you see it.) I’ve singled out Neal’s performance as praise-worthy, but in truth all the players – Paul Newman, Brandon De Wilde, and especially Melvyn Douglas – are pitch-perfect. Hud is a beautifully-made film, and fully deserving of a five-star rating, the first perfect score in the history of this blog.
Hud (1963) – 5/5 stars