Imagine this. A small Texas town caught in a stranglehold of family values run amok; dust that blows winds hot and cold with frustrations and betrayals; the biggest excitement is listening to the grass grow. Three generations of a born and bred cowboy cattlemen clan that drips with enough venom and love, accepted and denied, that will all soon manifest itself in the culmination of the end of dreams that fade away with light of day. Sounds rather Shakespearean, does it not? Novelist Larry McMurty most assuredly has a way with words and situations that portray the downtrodden and misunderstood in a fashion that leaves the rest of us cleaner for the experience. His novel, Horsemen Pass By, is the basis for the latter day drama, Hud.
Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) is the low life, cowboy stud, second son of old time rancher, Homer Bannon (Melyvn Douglas). He weasels his way into the hearts of the town's women, both married and not, while exiting their abodes at the first onset of a suspicious husband or boyfriend entering the front door. He lives by his wits and lack of morals; a true womanizer in every sense of the word. He drives his big pink Cadillac like he does his women, fast and loose, and fights his way out of predicaments with the same aplomb. His gift of gab and way with a bottle get him in and out of scrapes galore.
Hud has a young nephew, Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde), the son of his deceased older brother, who worships the ground he walks on and yearns to be like in every way. His ready accompaniment, though, tenured with the wisdom of his grandfather, provide a straddling of the fence in some instances and a complete abandonment of right versus wrong when a given situation presents itself for evaluation.
The wheels that make this film turn rest on the complexities that wind their way like vines through the machinations of each generation and what will and won't be tolerated by each fragment. The Sturm and Drang between Hud and his father is like a subtle earthquake that rumbles with humming vibrations until it blows apart years of frustrations that have festered and granulated into a pistil that ejaculates its seeds, pouring secrets out and into the open.
Alma Brown (Patricia Neal), the housekeeper and cook for the Bannon clan, tries to keep a lid on boiling emotions, both of the sexual and non-sexual varieties. She is worldly in the ways of men, especially those of the 'love 'em and leave 'em' tribe. Her Texas drawl and smoke enhanced voice leave no doubt as to her take on the male of the species and what they are and aren't capable of doing.
Into this maelstrom, enters a suspected case of foot and mouth disease that threatens to wipe out the herd that has helped to keep Homer Bannon anchored on this earth. It is the catalyst that triggers the ignition into full swing between the factions of the Bannon family and with it, a way of life starts on a downward spiral and towards its death throes.
Melyvn Douglas as the elder patriarch, is sublime in his approach to this complicated role. In his earlier career, he was known for parts that required little more than to look debonair and dashing, with added touches of humor for comic relief. Homer Bannon is the culmination of all those roles dashed on the rocks and what is left is the real face of an acting talent that respects the profession he has chosen. His Homer is a study in contrasts that betray his grip on self reliance and his thrusting of antagonism when relegated into a showdown with Hud. His cowboy gentlemen, with a code of the west ingrained within him, is an old as the two longhorn cattle he has raised, who are symbols of the west as he knew it to be.
Paul Newman's Hud is vindictive and visceral, never wanting to let his guard down, but showing, however briefly, flashes of concern before pulling the drawbridge back up again. He echoes flashes of energy that pulsate with power that tends to overshoot its mark with uncalled for results. He is a liar and a cheat, looking out for number one, and if anyone gets in his way, he mows them down and carries on.
Patricia Neal's Alma is the glue that holds the males together; a sounding board for all the ills of the world; that female shoulder to 'cry' on until push comes to shove.
De Wilde as Ronnie is on the cusp of manhood. He yearns for adulthood and all that he envisions it to be. What he doesn't know, though, is that there is more than meets the eye in that sacred society. He will grow up and when he does, the rose coloured glasses will come crashing to the ground.
Martin Ritt's direction is provisional. You have the feeling that this cast could have done the script with their eyes closed and that he was simply there for emotional support on the set. He has that confidence that comes with knowing how his actors will perform and trusting their judgment to carry through.
The superb black and white photography of the master, James Wong Howe is unsurpassed. You can almost taste the dust and feel the heat of the Texas plains, all while wanting to drip a cold cloth over your forehead. He's a professional whose career goes all the way back to 1923 and the films he worked on is a roster of Hollywood's best.
Music, or lack thereof, by Elmer Bernstein, parlays a single guitar, into a funeral dirge that accompanies the beginning and end of Hud. You sense the loneliness and sameness that begins and starts each day with each note and strum of the strings.
Hud is a film that etches a picture absolute with all the complexities that permete the everyday lives that people lead and abandon at will. Self centred individuals, both of the cad and not wanting to understand kind, run in tandem with issues that are as old as time itself. It's an awakening and also a closure that cuts the surface with tensions that effectuate results that are minor at the least and catastrophic at most. It's an American classic that returns us to a way of life that is fast disappearing on the landscape. It's good versus evil, courtesy of a cowboy hat and code of the west gone asunder. It's a look at the human condition and all of the layers that make it up and into everyday people.
It's a lesson in character studies that you're never taught in school.