Classic Corner: Hud

I selected Hud as the inaugural entry for “Classics Corner,” a new weekly feature spotlighting a pre-1980 film newly available on disc or streaming, mostly on a whim – it’s among the new additions to Hulu this month, and has been on Amazon Prime for a while, and it’s Martin Ritt directing Paul Newman, so hey, that should be good for a bit of escapism, right? And then it landed on the scene where the rancher patriarch is informed that his cows may have hoof-and-mouth disease, and he wonders aloud, “I wonder if a long quarantine would satisfy ‘em,” and worries about “starting an epidemic in the entire country,” to which his son responds, “This country is run on epidemics, where you been?” Well, so much for escapism.

Hud hit theaters in 1963, a (then) contemporary Western shot in black-and-white Panavision, and its most immediately striking quality is the beauty of its dusty, vacant landscapes, for which James Wong Howe won the Oscar for cinematography. It hails from the era when “serious,” character-driven movies were still shot in black and white, while epics (which often included Westerns) were in color; Howe splits the difference, capturing the vastness of the vistas without making the wide frames too picturesque for the intimacy required by the narrative (adapted from a Larry McMurtry novel), which is filled with little tangentially-related snapshots of small town life.

Newman plays the title character, and it’s a well-prepared entrance. We hear his name, and hear about him, long before he appears; his nephew Lonnie (Brandon deWilde) is sent into town to track him down, and he first encounters a barkeep sweeping up glass from the sidewalk (“Hud was in here last night”) before he’s directed to the home of a local married woman, to fetch Hud from the lady’s bed.

Hud is the town bad boy, a proud hellraiser, brash and cocksure. He roars down its dirt roads in a giant convertible Cadillac, drinking and screwing and generally having a great time being young, cool, and sexy. And he’s a quick thinker to boot; when the woman’s husband unexpectedly appears as Hud and Lonnie are heading out, Hud throws his nephew under the bus, a maneuver that ultimately saves both of their hides.

Most movies – of that era, and our current one, and every one in between – would take Hud at face value, perhaps tsk-tking a bit at his recklessness or pairing him off with “the right girl,” but treating him, essentially, as the hero. Newman and Ritt (and the screenwriters, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.) drill deeper into the character; the more time we spend with him, the clearer it becomes that he’s not just reckless but wildly irresponsible, a louse and a brute, and worse. He lives with the guilt of responsibility for his older brother’s death (and perhaps even excuses some of his behavior with that guilt), but in the picture’s most emotionally devastating sequence, their father (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning performance) shoots that down. “No boy, I was sick of you a long time before that,” he growls at his son. “You just don’t give a damn… you don’t value nothin’, you don’t respect nothin’.”

There are echoes in that dialogue of the unapologetic rebellion of a character like Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler from The Wild One, so lest we merely choose to adjust our perception to the realm of antiheroes, Hud gets darker. The family has a housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal, also an Oscar winner for the film), and she’s a bit of a character, a looker and a divorcee who humors the advances of both Hud and Lonnie, but keeps them at a distance. Yet there is an undeniable chemistry between her and Hud, best evidenced by a loaded scene in which they sit in her room and basically smoke at each other; Hud essentially propositions her in that moment, and they both choose to just let it hang in the air.

But later, when Hud is on a bender and furious at his father’s slights, he forces his way into Alma’s guest house and goes after her, the assault only halted by Lonnie’s sudden appearance. Ritt plays the scene out in an upsetting, eerie silence; Elmer Bernstein’s music is jettisoned in favor of disturbing sound effects, making the scene feel less like a melodrama than a horror movie. It’s a sharp contrast to, say, the way Alex North’s score accompanies the dark moods of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

“He’s just so drunk, Alma,” shrugs Lonnie, trying to excuse his uncle’s behavior, but when Hud catches his judgmental glare, and asks “What are you lookin’ at,” the young man’s response is icy in its clarity: “I’m lookin’ at you, Hud.” And that’s what the movie is ultimately about – a young man coming to see this man he’s idolized for so long (who seems such a personification of manhood itself) with clear eyes, for the first time. The title itself is a lie; the central character, the one whose eyes we see things through, and who changes as a result of them, is Lonnie.

And as with so many great movies, that central character is also an audience surrogate; his journey is ours. Through the sixties and especially into the next decade, our country and culture would have something like a reckoning with our notions of masculinity and manliness (for they are subtly different). It was not easy; Newman was subsequently quoted voicing frustration that he and the filmmakers had intended to make their audience feel “loathing and disgust” for the character, but “instead, we created a folk hero.”

Films (and characters) like Hud, of course, take on lives of their own. But there’s no mistaking the intentions of the film, which watches as every person close to Hud abandons him. By its conclusion his nephew and his housekeeper have fled the ranch in disgust and his old man has kicked the bucket; hell, even the cows are in the ground. Hud hollers after Lonny and storms into the house; he cracks open a beer, smokes a cigarette, and angrily paces the floors that are now his, and only his. To save face (for whom is unclear), he smirks and shrugs off the young man’s rejection. But it’s a hollow gesture, empty, for show. And then he slams the door shut, closing himself off from the rest of the world.

“Hud” is currently streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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