It has been said that Paul Newman was a character actor trapped in the body of a movie star. He had matinee idol good looks but was unafraid to tackle challenging roles in films like The Hustler (1961), Slap Shot (1977), and Road to Perdition (2002), but perhaps his riskiest role was that of the titular character in Hud (1963). Based on Larry McMurtry’s 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By, it depicts the conflict between an aging cattle rancher and his arrogant son with the nephew torn between his admiration for the former and his fascination with the latter. The film is a revisionist western, depicting a way of life that was becoming increasingly marginalized. Hud was a critical and commercial success while also being nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning three of them. It is also one of Newman’s signature roles and is a powerful example of his fearlessness as an actor.
The opening credits play over desolate Texan landscapes, captured in absolutely stunning, atmospheric quality by cinematographer James Wong Howe, with a lone vehicle driving through while Elmer Bernstein’s somber, subdued score plays over the soundtrack. We meet Lonnie Bannon (Brandon deWilde), a young man who is looking for his uncle Hud (Newman) early in the morning, which may explain why the small town he’s walking through looks so deserted. He’s been enlisted by his grandfather Homer (Melvyn Douglas) to find Hud and bring him back home. Lonnie finds Hud at a married woman’s house just as her husband returns. The quick-thinking Hud covers his own ass by telling the angry man that it was Lonnie stepping out with his wife and quickly gets his nephew out of there. This scene is a fitting introduction to Hud as it tells us all we need to know about him – a lazy troublemaker not above lying to save his own skin.
Hud and Lonnie make it back to the ranch and Homer tells them that one of his cows is dead and he doesn’t know why. Homer wants to bring in the state veterinarian to check it out while Hud doesn’t want any government people on their property meddling in their affairs. The vet eventually shows up and tells Homer that he’s got a potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Later, Hud tells his father to sell all of the potentially infected cattle and make some quick money but Homer is a principled man and refuses. He knows that would be illegal and morally wrong. Hud doesn’t see it that way as says early on, “I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. And that’s what I try to do. Sometimes I lean to one side of it, sometimes I lean to the other.”
Homer doesn’t approve of Hud’s lifestyle and in turn he believes that his father’s ways are outdated. They have spent many years in conflict with one another as evident from the tangible tension between them. The dilemma that the Bannons face is that if the cattle are infected they will have to all be destroyed and that will mean the end of the ranch because the family is broke. This casts an ominous cloud over everyone and one can’t help but feel the impending doom.
Despite all the grief Hud gives Lonnie, the young man looks up to his uncle and even has aspirations of being like him as evident early on when he tags along on one of Hud’s nights on the town. They have an interesting conversation where Hud tells him about the summer where he and Lonnie’s father raised hell and chased girls. Lonnie tells Hud that he’d like to go that route but when the latter invites the former to pick up women Lonnie demurs, which is the first indication that the young man doesn’t really want to be like Hud.
Paul Newman turns in another effortless performance as the ultimate heel. Initially, he portrays Hud as a charming rogue that specializes in married women but as the film progresses the actor reveals his character’s more troubling aspects, like his dishonest ideas for the ranch and his increasingly aggressive advances towards Alma (Patricia Neal), the Bannon’s housekeeper. Newman also shows a keen understanding of his character in the way he carries himself in a given scene. It is fascinating to watch how he interacts with objects, incorporating them into the moment and making it look natural. The actor knows how to immerse himself in a character, adopting specific mannerisms and ways of speaking. He’s also not afraid to go to dark places with Hud, especially when it comes to his relationship with Alma. Their flirting comes to an ugly conclusion that changes things between them forever. I think Homer sums Hud up best when he tells him, “You don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself and that makes you not fit to live with.” Melvyn Douglas delivers this speech masterfully and Newman, ever the gracious actor, stands there and takes it, glowering at him in simmering anger.
Brandon deWilde plays a young man coming of age and finding himself torn between Hud and his grandfather. The actor does a nice job of conveying the conflict that resides in Lonnie. He instills his character with the youthful idealism of a young man who hasn’t many life experiences under his belt but gets more than his share during the course of the film. Lonnie goes from someone who follows others to someone that figures out who he is in the world. DeWilde has the fresh-faced looks of youthful innocence and this is contrasted with intelligent eyes that suggest someone who thinks about things.
Melvyn Douglas is excellent as the aging patriarch. He’s an old school straight shooter from a bygone era. He remembers the past and its importance as he tells Lonnie about two of his oldest cattle: “I just keep ‘em for old time’s sake. Keep ‘em to remind me how things was. Everything we had came from their hides: our furniture, our ropes, our clothes, our hats.” He’s a tough old guy but Douglas also hints at a physical fragility, which is juxtaposed with Newman’s vitality. There is a nice scene between Homer and Lonnie when they go to the movies and the tired old man comes to life when the audience sings along to “My Darling Clementine.”
Patricia Neal plays Alma, the housekeeper looking after the Bannon men, and deflects Hud’s occasional flirtations as they trade good-natured verbal barbs. Newman and Neal play well off each other in their scenes together and have excellent chemistry. He is all smarmy smirks and roguish charm while she conveys an earthy sexiness mixed with a world-weariness of someone who’s lived a good chunk of life and not all of it good.
The sexual tension between Alma and Hud gradually increases as their verbal sparring scenes crackle with fantastic dialogue like when he says of her ex-husband, “Man like that sounds no better than a heel,” to which she replies, “Aren’t ya all?” He says, “Honey, don’t go shooting all the dogs ‘cause one of them’s got fleas.” Both actors deliver this dialogue so well and so naturally, conveying a subtext of Alma’s attraction to Hud but knowing that it would be dangerous to act on it for several reasons.
The husband and wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. first worked with director Martin Ritt on The Long Hot Summer (1958), starring Paul Newman, and went on to collaborate with the director over eight films, including Hud. Ravetch found Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By in a bookstore, read it and enjoyed it so much he asked Frank to read it. They had enjoyed working with Newman and Ritt and wanted to do it again. Ravetch and Frank brought the novel to Ritt’s attention as a possible film. The director wanted to work with Newman again but didn’t think that there was a part for him so the writers expanded the secondary character of Hud and made him central to the story. By doing this, Ravetch and Frank were able to examine “the greed and materialism that was beginning to take over America.”
Initially, Paramount Studios balked at this rather dark material and felt that it wasn’t commercial enough. Ravetch recalled that when executives read the script, “They paled. One of them said, ‘When does he get nice?’ I said, ‘Never.’” It was this unapologetically cruel character that drew Newman and Ritt to the project. In adapting McMurtry’s novel, Ravetch and Frank made several significant changes. Hud became Homer’s son rather than stepson as in the source material. In the book, the Bannon’s cook is a black woman named Halmea and in the film she is played by a white actress and renamed Alma.
Martin Rackin, head of Paramount Studios, did not like the film’s ending and asked Ritt to change it. The director loved and refused to change it. Newman stood by his director because he also loved the ending. Before Rackin could suggest an alternate ending, audience reaction and positive critical notices convinced the studio that Hud would be a commercial success.
The demise of Homer’s cattle ranch is a symbol of the end of a certain way of life depicted in traditional westerns. He represents the past and unfortunately Hud represents the future – cold-hearted business sense. Lonnie represents a glimmer of hope as he respects the past but looks ahead to a different way of life. Hud is a moving and powerful revisionist western about a family in decline with two of its members fighting for control – one who is older and wiser and the other younger and more savvy. It’s old school versus new school with Lonnie caught in the middle. By the end of the film he has to make some tough choices and grow up.
Baer, William. “Hud: A Conversation with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.” Mainly the 1950s. Spring 2003.
Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. Three Rivers Press. 2009.
Miller, Gabriel. The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. University Press of Mississippi. 2000.