Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)

HudHud is not really a Western.  Sure, it takes place in Texas and Paul Newman pokes some cattle, but there is a change in the frontier.  We're not moving west to fulfill our manifest destiny; in fact, there is nothing to fulfill.  Hud takes place at the end of an age: one that looks upon the past with a deep, ephemeral nostalgia.  Classic Western trope shares the mindset of many of Bruce Springsteen's characters: while the good ol' boys may butt heads with impending mechanization, even the letter of the law-- however perverted in its minutia-- doesn't stray too far in its intent from their grounded values of honor and sacrifice.  At the end of the day, a torch still burns, fueled by a rear-view optimism.

In Hud, the torch is extinguished and all the world is ash.  Hud is a parable of manifest destiny imploding on itself: the vast expanses don't represent freedom and glory, but foreboding and treachery.  A worldview has shifted in Paul Newman's Hud Bannon:  man, in all his least-common-denominator path of achieving carnal desires through lack of discipline, has becomes the measure of all things and "the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner," so long as its his.  Even his father Homer (the brilliant Melvyn Douglas), a man of deep principle, approaches death's door on his hands and knees on a dirt road in the black of night.  Stuck in the middle is Hud's nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde, once doe-eyedly seeking a savior in Shane), who concedes with a whimper that the old man is not in a better place, "not unless dirt is a better place than air."  If his resolve weren't bleak enough, it is all the more devastating that Hud's antagonist was embraced as counter-culture anti-hero and De Wilde's own life ended like James Dean's.

If Cormac McCarthy yens for this same nostalgia with a postmodern bent anigh to nihilism in No Country For Old Men, Larry McMurtry (author of Horseman, Pass By, upon which Hud was based, as well as the similarly-themed The Last Picture Show) won't succumb without a fighting chance.  And as such, can be unabashedly preachy in a film full of memorable monologues.  One of Homer's cows dies of foot-and-mouth disease and, like Job, his entire fold and livelihood must be exterminated.  Hud suggests he quickly pawn the herd off up north, out of sight, out of mind, washing his hands of any epidemic that might ensue.  As Homer defies such irresponsibility, Hud becomes increasingly reproachable, going so far as to try to declare Homer legally incompetent in order to secure his own inheritance.

For Hud, looking out for number one has become a bondage he can't shake.  "If you don't look out for yourself," he informs us early on, "the only helping hand you'll ever get is when they lower the box."  The alienated anti-hero accepts death as the outcome, but fails to see that his reaction to it informs his emptiness.  The film's central metaphor relates the emptiness of Hud's existence to the infected cattle.  Hud is a parasite who takes what he wants ("The only question I ever ask any woman is 'What time does your husband come home?'"), by force if necessary.  Homer's housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal, in an Oscar-winning performance) falls victim to Hud's drunken demands-- a man to whom his family has become but a stumbling block.  There is no relationship for Hud, and he wouldn't have it any other way.  In a world where "you don't value nothing," everything is worthless.  Hud is the answer to everything in Hud, and everything is morally gray and sparse.  The striking cinematography and minimalist score brilliantly follow suit.

No, Hud is no Western.  Even where revisionist additions to the genre question the tropes of honor and manhood, there is not revision without "vision".  Newman's Hud, in fragile moments, waxes nostalgic about his dead mother and brother before drinking away the memory.  It tragically reminds of Patricia Neal's series of strokes that hit her in 1965, rendering memory problems when she returned to the screen.  The Western is a genre of memory, Hud is a story of forced forgetfulness; a cautionary if unashamed tale of the price one pays in refusing the cost of love.  Paul Newman's rebellious on-screen persona makes it look effortless, but its a Greek tragedy whose antagonist abides alone in a self-made prison and, conversely, whose good men are helpless against entropy.  Not, however, without submitting to a higher standard.  -- ****/four stars

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