Viewed today, Martin Ritt’s Hud isn’t the electrifying experience that greeted audiences in 1963.
Back in that pre-Beatles, pre-James Bond era, when the social and cultural blinders of the Eisenhower years were still in place, Hud was an incendiary movie.
Though the Western setting seemed familiar enough, the character of Hud (perfectly embodied by Paul Newman) was a smack in the face. Here our leading man was a charming cad. Practically a rapist. Definitely without scruple.
The film oozed sexual innuendo at a time when the movies still had to be extremely careful in matters of the boudoir.
And Hud argued that good people are not always rewarded. In fact, bad people often get away with it.
None of that seems shocking today.
But Hud remains a riveting cinematic experience, thanks to the brilliant dialogue, great acting, and a director who was determined to pull no punches in telling a powerful story about personal corruption and the death of the traditional Old West.
Actually, Hud was a secondary character in Horseman, Pass By, the first novel by a Texas writer named Larry McMurtry (who would go on to write many best sellers like the epic Lonesome Dove and pen the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain).
But director Ritt and his screenwriters (the husband-and-wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., fresh off the success of The Long Hot Summer) glommed onto the cynical, selfish, hell-raising son of the Texas Panhandle as representative of the darker elements in modern American culture.
“I remember when the studio executives were reading the script,” screenwriter Ravetch recalled. “They paled. One of them said, ‘When does he get nice?’ I said: ‘Never.’”
Hud is the grown son of Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), a long-time cattle rancher. The two rarely see eye to eye – Homer adheres to a rigid and old-fashioned code of ethics while Hud believes that rules are made to be broken.
On one level Hud is Lon’s story. Who will the impressionable kid take after ... his by-the-book grandfather or his skirt-chasing, beer-swilling uncle?
On another it’s about the sexual tension between Alma (Neal exudes a wry, matter-of-fact eroticism) and the predatory Hud.
The film’s central narrative, though, concerns an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease that has infected the Bannons’ cattle. Hud wants to sell the animals to an unsuspecting buyer. Homer refuses and agrees with the authorities that his entire herd must be gunned down and bulldozed deep into the dry Texas dirt.
It’s a decision that will probably bankrupt the Bannons and end the only life they have ever known.
To emphasize the starkness of the flat Texas landscape, Ritt filmed in widescreen black and white (James Wong Howe won the Oscar for cinematography ... just look at those amazing clouds!!!). He used very little music. The film opens and closes with a melancholy guitar, but most of the music comes from a transistor radio Lon carries.
The nation’s top critics – Judith Crist, Brendan Gill, Arthur Knight, Penelope Gilliatt, Bosley Crowther, Dwight Macdonald, Pauline Kael – called Hud not only the best American film of year, but one of best Hollywood productions in memory.
Oscar liked Hud, too. The film earned seven Academy Award nominations and won three, including supporting performance honors for Neal and Douglas.
And the film was a huge box office success – largely because young people fell in love with Newman’s preening, cocky, self-centered anti-hero. He was cool. Sexy. Self-assured.
By contrast Homer was just a tired geezer with an old man’s petrified morality. And young Lon was a wimp.
Ritt, who meant the film to be an indicator of the wrong direction in which America was heading, was appalled: “That’s why the film did the kind of business it did – kids loved Hud. That S.O.B. that I hated, they love.”
In later years Newman tried to analyze what had happened:
“Hud was good with women. He did all those macho things. He wore his pants right. But we thought the fact that he was basically rotten at the core would be the distinguishable feature.
“What we didn’t realize was that all of the other things overwhelmed that single flaw and he came away a folk hero. We thought people would turn away from him, but apparently he was part of the American Dream.”
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.