(Check out my previous Western film review here: Fort Apache)
In the late 1950s, about ten years before the onset of the New Hollywood movement (or the American New Wave), an auteur rose up from out of theatre directing into the limelight of Hollywood productions. His name was Martin Ritt and he began what would become a long, esteemed career, during the first fifteen years of which he created a powerful body of work that prefigured the American New Wave in many ways. From the personal stamp of his vision on each film, to his grappling with traditional American genre formulations and oft-times subversion of them in favor of antiheroes and moral greyness, he quickly became an influential figure in American cinema.
Martin Ritt’s first feature was a film noir starring director-actors John Cassavettes and Sidney Poitier, each a great pioneer in his own right, entitled Edge of the City, which was released in 1957. By the next year, however, on The Long Hot Summer Ritt had found his muse in the rugged, young, vaguely James Dean type he cast for the film’s protagonist. His name was Paul Newman, and despite not being a Southerner, he went in all in for his part, moving to the South for a time to study the linguistic mannerisms of real southerners to hack his role in Ritt’s film adaptation of a handful of connected William Faulkner short stories.
Although Newman and Ritt wouldn’t collaborate together again until 1961 on Paris Blues, they would develop a close working relationship and become considered as a package deal of sorts for the studios in which Ritt funded his films. The following year, Newman contributed to Ritt’s film Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man. And in 1963, the two co-founded Salem Pictures through which they secured a three-film deal with Paramount for Martin Ritt to direct and Paul Newman to star. The first of these three films would become the Revisionist Western film Hud.
The story was an adaptation of a 1961 novel by Larry McMurtry entitled Horseman, Pass By and followed the exploits of a teenage boy named Lonnie Bannon who works on his grandfather’s Cattle Ranch with along with his Uncle Hud Bannon whose boozing and loose ways are infamous around town. Hud is a vicious man whose encounters with the bottle caused the car crash that ended his brother’s life (Lonnie’s father) fifteen years prior. He sleeps with other men’s wives, but manages to do his fair share of the work on the ranch for the most part. Lonnie looks up to Hud and even reveres him as a potent, masculine figure with immense intrigue, almost herculean and mythic in the ubermenschian quality of his lack of morals and ability to get any thing and anyone he wants.
But Lonnie’s grandfather, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglass), dislikes Hud immensely for what he understands to be Hud’s lack of interest or care for anything. He doesn’t seem to have any strongly held beliefs and will crush anyone, including his own father, to get what he wants. When hoof-and-mouth disease breaks out among the cattle on the farm, and a local veterinarian diagnoses it and alerts the proper authorities, the Bannon’s are told that these cows and bulls they have raised for generations into one of the best stocks in the country must all be put down, lest the scourge breaks out and infects herds throughout the country. Hud illustrates his unscrupulous manner by trying to convince his father to sell the cattle off to other ranchers before the full diagnosis comes in and all of their money dries up. And when Homer reasonably refuses him as this would be an act in bad faith to his neighbors, Hud concocts a plan to sue his father for control of the ranch under the assumption that the old man has gone off his rocker.
After a particularly egregious night in which Hud gets increasingly drunker and eventually sexually assaults the Bannon maid, Alma Brown (Patricia Neal), only to be stopped in the earliest stages of the encounter by Lonnie, the young Bannon realizes just how evil his uncle really is. By the end of the film, Lonnie has made up his mind about what position he will choose in life, finding himself staunchly within the Homer moral camp. But audiences of the time, despite this being before the full flowering of the hippie movement, before the Vietnam war, and well before the New Hollywood Movement, found Hud to be an inspiring figure, and an antihero to look up to even though he is nearly irredeemably evil.
The film was popular with young audiences for the same reasons that the American New Wave filmmakers would come to be in the following years. It was popular with critics for the beautiful, classical, almost arthouse black and white cinematography of James Wong Howe who composed some of the most beautiful shots of the Texas Panhandle ever committed to celluloid, as well as allowing his figures to swim in veritable shadows and blacks so deep during night sequences as if phantoms or condensations of character into pure typology. The effect is radical and has less in common with Westerns than with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. And through this artistic choice, Howe frames Hud as a primal force oozing sensuality and pure brutality as if some beast self-arising through sheer force of will into existence from the wellspring of Nothingness itself.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Douglass won for Best Supporting Actor, Neal for Best Actress, and Howe for Best Cinematography. And the film made its weight back in gold at the box office as well.
After Hud, Ritt and Newman would work together on two more occasions to complete their three picture deal: namely, in 1964 on The Outrage, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashoman; and the second film, in 1967, Hombre, which was another Revisionist Western. At about this time, the New Hollywood was in the early stages of emergence and Paul Newman was a hot ticket that everyone wished to obtain for their films. And despite Ritt directing 19 more films over the next 23 years, Paul Newman acted in nary a one, instead moving on to collaborate with Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, WUSA, Pocket Money, The Drowning Pool) George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot) John Huston (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Mackintosh Man) and Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill, Quintet), among others.