USA (112 mi) 1963 ‘Scope d: Martin Ritt
This world is so full of crap, a man's gonna get into it sooner or later whether he's careful or not. —Hud (Paul Newman)
A moralistic western about an aging cattle rancher (Melvyn Douglas) and his good-for-nothing son (Paul Newman), with bleak overtones about the careless indifference for the incoming future, distinguished by career-defining performances, where Newman is absolutely brilliant as Hud, the angel who has fallen from grace and leaves behind a dark trail of self-centered contempt for others to wallow in. Patricia Neal, winning an Academy Award as Best Actress, making much more of the role than was written, is a housekeeper who fills dual roles as the absent mother, respectful and affectionate with widower Douglas and his parentless grandson, while also personifying a sassy seductive temptress in Hud’s eyes. Beautifully shot on ‘Scope in black & white by cinematographer James Wong Howe, where the most exceptional scenes of the film were shot on location, some outdoors at night, where the incandescent fireflies are each perfectly illuminated as they fly through the air during some of the more intimate conversations, but also over the opening credits, where long shots of a lone vehicle traveling across an empty expanse of a horizon were duplicated by David Lynch in THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999). The spare music by Elmer Bernstein also perfectly matches the downbeat mood of the film. Other than the terrific performances, where Douglas (Best Supporting) and Neal won Oscars, while Newman was also nominated, and was robbed, the award going to Sidney Poitier for his upbeat performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963), what immediately stands out is the thematic resemblance to SHANE (1953), including the use of the same small kid from that film who yells out his name at the end, Brandon De Wilde, now grown up to a 17-year old idolizing teenager who follows Hud around everywhere. In each film, legacy matters.
This is the first Larry McMurtry novel, Horsemen, Pass By, to be adapted into a movie, and the bare bones setting matched with the lacerating dialogue speaks volumes, as the film continually surprises with worldly cleverness, as Hud is a wise ass who doesn’t give a damn about the past or the future, as all he can think about is today, right here and now. His smug attitude of defiance and self-certainty is linked to his closest companion, the everpresent bottle, where he continually prances around with an air as if he’s seen it all, been there, done that, and what it all amounts to in the end doesn’t mean squat. While his aging father agonizes over every decision, filled with the regrets that come with a lifetime of hard times, Hud just chucks it all as a huge waste of time and feels responsible for nothing and nobody but himself. Easy come, easy go. While his good looks and charm are enough to get what he wants most of the time, he’s not against using underhanded methods to get the rest. When the kid follows him around all the time, it flatters him and appeals to his sense of vanity, but he just as easily swats him away like a fly whenever he feels like he’s being a nuisance. In the same way that John Wayne played a loathsome character in THE SEARCHERS (1956), where his familiarity as the western hero was somewhat confusing to audiences, as it is here with Newman playing such a bitterly repugnant and cynical man without the slightest hint of scruples, yet it’s Paul Newman, one of the most principled men on the planet. This dual edge may be difficult, especially to younger viewers, as they so easily look up to this guy. His stud-like confidence and air of nonchalance is the stuff teenagers dream of, yet his despicable attitude toward others is blatantly crude and offensive. This also explains why this is among Newman’s best performances, as he’s utterly believable in this role, a perfect fit as if he was born to play Hud. He’s never looked more comfortable onscreen, and for that matter, neither has Patricia Neal. It’s simply a perfect fit of two minds racing similarly, feeling the same sexual tension, yet reacting to it in such different ways. As Neal points out, Hud is “hard” on everyone, the kind of guy who goes about everything in the wrong way.
Melvyn Douglas plays the Raymond Massey character in EAST OF EDEN (1955), a man with a minister’s scruples who painstakingly tries to show the young grandson how to do things the right way, even when it’s hard, in contrast to Hud who always takes the easy road. Hud drives a flashy pink Cadillac convertible that collects married women and whisky bottles in the back seat, while Douglas is the paternalistic character who has to deal with the most adversity. He steadfastly insists on abiding by the law and being morally upright. The good and evil scenario is perhaps a bit too obvious, but Douglas in his gruff voice as a grandfatherly old man is a real scene stealer and speaks from the gut, where it’s hard not to be moved by his life affirming moments onscreen, as he’s the real man who’s seen it all, who’s made something out of nothing, not the pretender like Hud who’s never helped a living soul in his entire life without asking for payment in return. Douglas’s message of hard love is the message of the film, as he’s given his grandson something that he can take with him wherever he goes, reminding him “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire,” while Hud pretends to be a bigshot, but he’s always a guy who’s too big for his britches. In the end, who has the most to show for their lives? Who leaves the most behind? Who has actually built a legacy? Hud is the kind of guy who is all show, who thinks he’s got what he wants, especially with the good looking girls who are actually married to someone else, but in the end it’s all an empty pipedream, where the devastating emptiness couldn’t be more pronounced. A few more years of hard drinking and he’ll be ready to pull up a chair in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. For all of Hud’s bitter cynicism, this is a surprisingly smart and deeply reflective film about ethics, individualism, and what’s become of the frontier spirit that built the West, well written, brilliantly acted, and given such naturalistic performances where these characters literally come alive on the screen, where one can see much of the same blisteringly raw and lonesome material of smalltown Texas used again in yet another major McMurtry work, The Last Picture Show (1971).
Of note, during the free screening of a perfectly restored 35 mm print of the film at Block Cinema at Northwestern University (where all films winning an Academy Award are being restored on 35 mm prints), family members, including the two youngest daughters of Patricia Neal were present, Lucy and Ophelia, taking questions after the film. Patricia Neal attended Northwestern University and the family decided to donate all of her letters and personal material to the university for their archives. Neal was married to British author Roald Dahl, so the kids (there were three older children as well) were raised outside of Oxford in England. Neither had yet been born at the time of the film HUD, and their mother had a stroke while pregnant with Lucy, remaining in a coma for three weeks, having to relearn how to walk and talk, ending up with a healthy baby but a lifelong limp, working more sparingly after that. Afterwards, she became an advocate for rehabilitation therapy, where Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee has a wing named after her. She later divorced and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where she died at age 84 from lung cancer.