Hud (1963)

Martin Ritt | 1hr 52min

Perhaps if the story of Hud was set a century earlier in the Old West, its dusty landscapes of low-hanging horizons would have been rendered in dazzling Technicolor, and we might have found John Wayne swaggering through the doors of a saloon with his thumbs hooked in his belt. Instead, Martin Ritt’s bleak, greyscale photography captures this rural environment with a dour austerity, and in place of a traditional Western hero, we find Paul Newman taking the abrasive, hyper-masculine archetype to its logical conclusion. It is apparent to any mature adult who spends more than ten minutes with him that his charm is only surface deep though, as while there is no direct correlation between his moral corruption and his family’s waning livelihood, the formal connection that unites them is not without purposeful intent.

The inspiration that Peter Bogdanovich drew from Ritt’s monochrome vision of small-town, northern Texas is evident in the way that both The Last Picture Show and Hud submit to the slow-paced ennui of everyday life, creating a pair of rural settlements destined to be abandoned within a few decades. Lonely vehicles chug their way down empty roads, rarely venturing any further than the outskirts of town, and there always seems to be a country song floating on a warm breeze, breaking up the lingering, dry silence.

Magnificent establishing shots of the town and ranch, hanging the horizon low in the frame and letting the grey sky dominate.

It isn’t hard to imagine these communities as neighbours either, especially given that both their stories unfold in the early 1950s right at the dawn of post-war America. Where the high school students of The Last Picture Show are itching to graduate and escape their tedious lives though, the only teenager we meet in Ritt’s film is strangely content, deluded by Hud’s macho confidence. Lonnie’s departure at the end of the film may mark a melancholy conclusion, but it is also likely the best path forward for him, whisking him away into another world separate from his uncle’s selfish influence.

Ritt fully understands how to use levels in his blocking of actors, towering Newman over the family as they sit and lie beneath him.

The tone is set very early for what kind of man Hud is. If his romantic interest in a married woman or his reckless destruction of delicate flowers aren’t indicative enough of where his moral compass points, then his nefariousness is abundantly clear in his suggestion to his elderly rancher father, Homer, that they sell off their diseased cattle, making them someone else’s problem. For Hud, issues aren’t meant to be solved, but simply pushed onto other people, revealing a complete lack of responsibility on his part. When Homer calls him out on this, his dismissive response only drives that point deeper, painting him out as a self-centred, insecure man hiding behind the good looks and charisma of a Western hero.

“You don’t care about people, Hud. You don’t give a damn about them. Oh, you got all that charm going for ya, and it makes the youngsters wanna be like you. That’s the shame of it, cause 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.”

Hud in darkness, and Homer lit above him on the stairs – a great stage for this chastisement.

Parallel to the story of his troubled relationships, we find an infectious disease wreaking havoc on his family’s cattle, bringing their small ranch to its knees. There is no hope to be found in this storyline, which follows a steady, downward trajectory towards an inevitable defeat, and yet James Wong Howe’s camera brings a nimble sensitivity to its character dynamics, choosing to hang on the actors’ expressions as they wander their environments. Shots shift smoothly from barren landscapes to tightly staged compositions, building a close relationship between the environment and its settlers, though Ritt’s blocking often sees them hunched over as well, as if physically weakened by its pestilence. These men don’t admit it, but they evidently accepted their defeat a long time ago, and in arrestingly poignant shots like that which introduces us to the ranch with a dead tree branch infested with buzzards, we too can sense an oppressive decay hanging in the air.

Depth of field in Ritt’s blocking, creating shapes and character interactions across layers of the frame.
Ritt obstructing the shot with a dead, buzzard-infested tree branch – deathly imagery.

Even Elmer Bernstein’s melancholy music score consisting solely of a lightly plucked guitar induces a far more muted tone than the traditionally bombastic orchestras of Hollywood Westerns, stripping its soundscape back to a stream of flowing, minimalist melodies. Just as vitality has been drained from this once-thriving landscape, so too is it sucked from Homer, destroyed by his two greatest creations that have ultimately mounted to nothing – his business, and his son. “It don’t take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow,” he laments not long before his own feeble death, and that sentiment is never felt so sharply as it is when he and his ranch hands are forced to put down their entire herd of cattle.

An excellent piece of staging from Ritt in a moment of quiet tragedy.

Ritt directs the start of this scene like a sombre funeral procession, spending several minutes rounding up the livestock and driving them into a pit without a single word of dialogue. Around the edges, he stages Homer and his ranch hands like mourners watching the lowering of a loved one’s coffin, though these proceedings are far grimmer than any religious ceremony. When the preparations are finally made, the silence is broken by two words – “Start shootin’” – and the scene erupts into cruel, bleak violence, landing each cut in Ritt’s vicious editing like its own merciless bullet.

A bleak, lingering scene as the cattle are driven into their grave, and then breaking the quiet with the devastating massacre.
Ritt blocking his actors like John Ford, using the levels of his terrain to create a gorgeous composition.

With the family business destroyed, Homer laid to rest, and Lonnie gone for good, there is little left for Hud in this small town. For a man as stubbornly independent as him though, perhaps that doesn’t even matter. Just like the infectious disease that killed off his family’s cattle, he too will continue to spread his own pain and anger to those around him, callously destroying the proud legacy that his own ancestors spent several lifetimes nurturing. More than anyone else in town, he is truly the child of an Old West mythology that bred self-reliant individualism into its men, but which failed to instil in them the heart and compassion of its greatest heroes, thereby creating the means of its own, sad downfall.

Low horizons, wide shots, and sparse mise-en-scène makes for austere imagery.

Hud is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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