Hud and Hombre. Arguably Paul Newman’s best film performances and two of his best films. Warning, these are downbeat films, but they are remarkable characters and stories.
Paul Newman’s best films of the 1960s had him on the opposite side of the hero line. These are roles many other actors wouldn’t have taken.
Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy were rascals. Hombre’s John Russell was cold and a reluctant hero. Hud on the other hand was a character with no redeeming qualities.
Newman was at his best in the skin of flawed characters. As an actor, he found the center mass of those roles. The deeper the flaw, the better. And the more interesting the role.
Hud and John Russell were unattractive characters and risky roles for a leading man.
Anyone who doubted the depth of Newman’s acting talent should study these roles. He is amazing. Hud is loud and aggressive. Russell is quiet and a loner. These characters could not be any further apart, which exemplifies Newman’s skill to lock-in on these roles.
Hud Bannon is an unprincipled, arrogant and self-centered son of ranch owner Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas). He beds the married women in town and lives off his old man, waiting for him to die so he can sell the ranch to finance his good times. At first, Hud is a big deal to his young nephew Lonnie, who also lives at the ranch, but over time, Lonnie sees that Hud has nothing redeeming about his. Hud also makes a play for Alma (Patricia Neal) the live-in housekeeper, in a drunken fit, and has to be fought off by Lonnie.
Hud was adapted from a Larry McMurtry novel, written for the screen by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., and directed by Martin Ritt. It was co-produced by Newman and Ritt.
The film focuses on the aftermath of finding a dead cow on the ranch. This strikes fear, as it could be from a disease. Hud fears the loss of his inheritance while the father fears it could mean losing the ranch. The state veterinarian issues a quarantine until tests are done. Hud blames his father for buying cheap Mexican cattle. The power struggle between father and son grows. The father wants to do the right thing even if it means losing the entire herd. Hud wants to use this to have his father declared incompetent so he can take control of the ranch. The nephew begins to see that Hud isn’t the idol he is held up to be. In the center of this is Alma, who while attracted to dangerous men, keeps her distance from Hud, until he tries to rape her one night and is fought off by the nephew.
In the end, the cattle must be destroyed, and this parallels the father’s failing health. Alma decides to the leave, going to the bus station at night to get away. Hud admits his attraction to her, she is the one who got away. In reality, it’s not her, it’s the chase.
On the way from the bus station they discover the father by the side of the road, he’s been fallen from his horse and is in bad shape. He never recovers. After the funeral, Lonnie has had enough of Hud and leaves. Lonnie knows Hud will sell the ranch, so he says to put his half in the bank. Hud feels rebuffed and goes into the house alone.
Many of Newman’s characters were flawed, but usually had some redeeming values and were even a bit sympathetic. Hud was none of that, completely bad to the bone. Playing such a loathsome character is a huge career risk, but it didn’t hurt Newman at all.
The film was photographed in black & white film stock, common for dramatic films, adding to the dark nature of the story. Paramount, the studio bankrolling the production felt the film was too dark and downbeat to be commercially successful, and asked the director to change the ending. Ritt and Newman refused.
The film made money, earned seven Academy Award nominations, and was selected by the American Film Institute for historic preservation, a very select honor. Melvyn Douglas won the Best Supporting Oscar, Patricia Neal the Best Actress Oscar and Jame Wong Howe for his cinematography. Newman and Ritt were also nominated, as well as the screenplay and art direction.
In 1966, Newman’s films were Harper and Torn Curtain. Harper was a hit about a cool private detective, with a script by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, All the Presidents Men) from a Ross McDonald novel. Torn Curtain, a big budget Cold War dud from Alfred Hitchcock, didn’t harm Newman’s reputation but didn’t help it. The year 1967 would be better: Hombre and Cool Hand Luke.
For Hombre, Newman rejoined forces with Martin Ritt, and again had Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. wrote the script, from a novel by Elmore Leonard. James Wong Howe provided the cinematography again. Howe photographed in color this time but the look is washed-out, desert scrub brush. You can feel the heat and sweat in his photography.
Newman plays John Russell, a part white, part Native American, who was raised by the Apaches because he feels more a part of their world. In the white cultur, he faces discrimination, even after he receives an inheritance from his father. A gold watch and a boarding house. He sells the boarding house, putting the caretaker Jessie (Diane Cilento) out of a job. His plan is to use the money to buy a herd of horses for his people.
Russell leaves town by stage. Also on the stage will be Jessie, whose sheriff boyfriend, is unwilling to marry her. She has nothing else to stay for. There are other passengers, each with a story, sort of like Stagecoach, but this is really the trip from hell. Also on-board is a mean, sadistic man who threatens another passenger to give up his ticket. Richard Boone is this mysterious passenger, and he is no Paladin. The stage driver is Martin Balsam. Upon learning that Russell is of mixed heritage, the passengers insist that he ride atop the stage instead of in their compartment. A progressive set of minds.
The stage is robbed on its journey. One of the outlaws is Jessie’s boyfriend, who decided that crime paid better than lawman’s work. Richard Boone’s character, Grimes, is the leader of the outlaws.
Grimes has taken Mrs. Favor from the stage hostage. Russell kills two of the outlaws including Jessie’s boyfriend, but recovers the stolen bounty from one of the dead men’s saddlebags.
One of the stage passengers, Professor Favor, has stolen a lot of money that was supposed to go toward the benefit of the Apaches, as he also acted as an Indian agent by the federal government. Grimes knew that Favor was carrying the money on the stage.
Without any horses from the stage, Russell gathers his stuff and sets out alone, with the other passengers quickly following. They march across the desert. While Russell is away scouting, Favor is able to disarm the stage driver and retrieve the stolen money. He decides to leave the others. Russell returns in time to confront Favor, get the money and guns back, and banishes Favor into the desert. The others, even though Favor was going to leave them, feel this is harsh treatment for Favor.
Russell is a solemn character; he doesn’t talk, he acts. Jessie tries to penetrate his outer shell but doesn’t seem to get very far. His upbringing has taught him to survive, and be careful who to trust. The passengers treat him badly, then cling to him as their savior, only to question his motives when he catches Favor trying to abandon them in the desert without water.
Russell and the passengers eventually find an abandoned mining camp but the water well does not work. They hide in a cabin at the top of the hill. Grimes’ group has been tracking them. Favor wonders into the camp and is welcomed back, but not by Russell. Favor plays on their sympathies. Grimes shows up with Mrs Favor. They tie her to the mining cart track below the cabin. They will trade her for the money. Grimes sends a man to the ridge above the cabin, so there is no escape.
Mrs. Favor cries for help, she is parched and baking in the hot sun. Russell is talked into going to rescue her. He takes the money from the saddle bag and tells one of the passengers to make sure it goes to the Apaches. He puts something else in the saddlebags and walks down the hill. He cuts Mrs. Favor loose and she stumbles up the hill but falls. She also obscures the passenger with the rifle from being able to help defend Russell. When they discover there is no money in the saddlebag, Russell shoots Grimes, but another outlaw and Russell exchange gunfire and both are mortally shot.
The final scene, one of the outlaws wants to know the name of the man. The stage driver says he was called John Russell.
Newman played Russell as an anti-hero, pushed into action to defend people who did not respect him. Russell was not unlikable, but he was detached and made little effort to fit into white society, which had little use for him. Russell had his own code, formed from his experience with the Apaches and the double dealing from the federal government toward his people. It is interesting how he is treated one way dressed in his Native American clothes and long hair, and then differently by the same people when he is clean-shaven and dressed as a white man.
Newman’s performance is muted. Those blue eyes are not warm, they are ice and penetrating. Newman shows little emotional range other than through his actions. It is the other characters in the film that show emotions where Newman remains quietly focused.
The film’s cast is a good one. Newman was never afraid to work with good actors, it made the films better. Boone, Cilento, March, Balsam, Cameron Mitchell, David Canary, Barbara Rush and Frank Silva rounded out the players.
Newman didn’t always guess correctly on audience tastes or the quality of the project he attached himself to. He had a number of duds in the decade, but he moved on and quickly found success in other films. Newman was always derided over his penetrating blue eyes, and underestimated for his acting talent. The blue eyes were a gift, the acting talent he earned.