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Cold Eyes and Weary Bodies in "Hud"

For this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot we're celebrating Hud on it's 50th anniversary

Though I readily concede that its my own prejudices as a Yank and a cityboy that get in the way, I rarely associate nuanced feeling with the western genre or artful dialogue with a Texas twang. So Hud (1963) plays like a miracle to me, a major one. This adaptation of Larry McMurty's novel (he would later write screenplays including Brokeback Mountain, which plays like a distant cousin to this 1960s masterpiece) never feels anything less than authentic in its Southwestern reality and yet its pure poetry. Consider this callous but perfectly sculpted line of dialogue from Hud (Paul Newman in arguably his finest hour) to his nephew Lon (Brandon deWilde) who is worrying about Homer's (Melvyn Douglas), the paterfamilia's, waning health. 

Happens to everybody - horses, dogs, men; nobody gets out of life alive

But I'm not really here to talk about the rough beauty of the dialogue in Hud -- though it's never far from my mind -- but the language of the eyes and the body delivering it. And, I rush to add, the award-winning cinematography and composition which package the unimproveable ensemble up so potently. Look at the shadows and the way Newman, bathed in light, become a handsome devil (essentially the truth of his character) his famous blue eyes less like inviting pools of water than icy death. 

But we'll return to close ups shortly. Much of Hud is shot in medium and long shot and everywhere you look, limbs are dangling and swaying and whole bodies are sneaking brief moments of rest, perched on porches, settling into chairs, or suggestively refusing to leave their beds. Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal, as the family's housekeeper Alma, both won deserved Oscars for their inspired work, and they beautifully capture not just the details of their characters but the physicality of people who've worked their bodies every day of their lives whether cattle rustling or scrubbing dishes. The younger characters Lon and Hud, are less exhausted, though there's still a kind of future arthritic effort to their jerky performative posing. 

runner up for best shot. Hud is a big deal

Lonnie: I'll go with you Hud.
Hud: What big deal you got lined up, sport -  a snowcone or something?"

Take one of the best scenes in Hud on the porch of the family house while the characters eat peach ice cream and enter and exit the frame without the camera following them (though Hud is quite cinematic, this particular scene is blocked like a play). Lon and his granddad have a fascinatingly evasive exchange about Hud's dead brother (Lon's dad) and why Homer dislikes his only living son "He knows. You don't need to." Douglas delivers each line with evasive though never rude gruffness, his cards held tight to his chest. When Hud enters the scene and announces a run into town, Lon shifts his attention to the uncle he idolizes but doesn't understand. There's this exquisitely telling funny shot of him mirroring Hud's pose -- while Hud mocks him but invites him to tag along anyway. How brilliant that it takes a second to even figure whose shadow is thrown onto the wall.

The withholding father and his ungrateful child finally  have it out in the film's centerpiece, a truly seismic emotional clash (the first hour being foreshadowing tremor and the second cruel aftershock) which Hud believes is entirely about his dead brother - the son Homer adored - which Homer denies. The righteous father tears into Hud as a man without principle, without empathy for his fellow man, without care for the world around him. Hud listens with silent hostility (he knows it's true) in one of the most gloriously lit and perfectly acted close-ups in all of cinema - my choice for best shot - as water from the well drips down his angry face. That's the closest he'll ever get to human tears in the film though Hud may have once shed them for the mutual loss that ripped them apart 15 years earlier. His cool eyes shift with a cruel smile as the room falls silent until he finds an unexpected nonsequitor to hurt both of them, and shoves the dagger in.

his mamma loved him but she died

My mamma loved me but she died."

This scene never fails to tear me up inside and deeply impress me for myriad reasons but precisely for the writing, the lighting, blocking and precise direction by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae, Cross Creek, Sounder) and the peak moment of Newman's indelible cold, cruel star turn.

Frank Langella the actor recently dissed Paul Newman's acting reputation in his memoir "Dropped Names: Famous Men & Women as I Knew Them" saying that while he was a great movie star he was not a great actor. His reasoning was that Newman lacked the one thing that Langella figures all great actors have - danger.  I can only surmise that Langella never saw Hud. For Paul Newman was both a great movie star and a great actor and Hud is the proof of it. Even if his career had ended there he'd still be legendary. There's enough danger in his hostile beauty in Hud to scar everyone in his orbit. 

Hud: I don't usually get rough on my women. Generally don't have to. 
Alma: You're rough on everyone. 

Other "Best Shot" Must-Reads on Hud For its 50th Anniversary



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Reader Comments (20)

I just posted mine. Hope I'm not too late!

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

welcome yet another Andrew!

May 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I had seen bits and pieces of Hud over the years but had never been able to catch the whole picture. So finally in preparation from this I watched this from beginning to end and was glad that I did. It's really a fine film with great performances from all and beautiful black & white cinematography. A lot of wonderful shots but the one that stayed with me was the striking shot of Hud telling Lonnie about the accident that killed his father and fireflies surrounded him with the light reflecting off their wings. A close second was Melvyn Douglas sitting on his horse as the cattle are destroyed, you can see him dying inch by inch as the process goes along. A great combination of performance and the confidence of the director to stay on one image and let the audience take it in, something the jump cut happy directors of today would do well to learn.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Gorgeous movie. By no means "pretty", but a stunner of lighting and composition (and first rate ensemble work to boot). Always a bit amazed when I remember it missed out on a Best Picture nomination, but the 3 it did win were more than deserved.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Val - agreed. It's up there with THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY in wtf Best Picture misses with nominations everywhere else. And like that film it's better than all of its year's nominees.

Joel6 -- frequent cutting is also in some ways just like what we do in modern viewing where people are always seeing bits of movies but rarely the whole thing from start to finish without interruption (unless they're actually in a movie theater). And it makes a world of difference for films like HUD.

May 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If I weren't packing this apartment to move across town, I totally would have contributed a post. One of my favorite films. Really terrific.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterzig

Newman' s Hud like Christie's Darling are two of the most amoral characters put on film.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterrobertL

Thanks for a wonderful piece. I am going to rewatch it tonight!

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Patryk -- my only hope is that in addition to a rewatch here and there i've inspired a few people to see if for the first time. It's way too underdiscussed today and I'd hold it up against any of the classics of the 1960s.

May 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's been many years but I remember everyone wanting to love Hud because, well, it's Paul Newman! But in the end it all falls apart. Everyone else has given their all with nothing left to give.

Does anyone know how Patricia Neal got the part? Talk about perfect casting. I've seen her in a lot of things and nothing before really ever came close to this kind of part.

I always relate Paul Newman with Jeff Bridges: actors who work with effortless ease that their performances always look easier than they they are. Plus they are always emotionally expressive in their roles, which is hard to see in male actors.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

joel, I love that scene with Douglas as well. One of my favorite BSA's of all time.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I agree with you Nate! I really hope that this post inspires more people to see this. It is tragic that so few participated and then again, that is most likely because so many have yet to see it. Certainly one of the greatest films of the 60's, and quite honestly it is probably my favorite English language film from the decade so YAY!

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I am deeply ashamed how long it took me to realize Melvin Douglas plays Homer, especially considering how much I loved his performance. I guess it's because I know him best from Ninotchka, and you couldn't get two more tonally different films.

I wonder if Paul Newman is almost *too* pretty to be Hud. I mean this because he's so charismatic (in a seedy way) and so handsome that, despite the fact that he's nothing but destructive and evil, viewers still idolize him. That being said, this is my favorite Paul Newman performance. Hands down. Even over Butch Cassidy!

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Sorry I couldn't participate in this one! I couldn't get my hands on a copy.

I just wanted to let you know that you've tagged this entry with all the tags EXCEPT "Hit me with your Best Shot". Not a big deal, but I'm sure you want to keep things orderly.

When do you think the project will come back from Hiatus?

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterallisontooey

Alison -- we'll be back on July 3rd and through August at least

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I really like the films I've seen of this director, Martin Ritt. One of the humanist directors with a social conscience, he was blacklisted from the television industry and was only able to work in the theatre for a number of years. I'm always interested when I see a movie from one of the blacklisted directors or writers. I wonder, what was it the industry didn't want us to see or hear from these people? It often seems to be a more thoughtful or critical expression of society or human beings. I kind of like that.

But even when they were allowed to work again, it seemed that there was lots of resistance in the industry towards them. And how much energy does a single artist have to both do their art and fight for it's recognition? That's one of the things that I admired about Stanley Kramer, and why I think the Stanley Kramer award has value. It's the recognition for artists with a social conscience. There are detractors who label these movies as dull, but I find the ones I have seen to be brisk and uncompromising.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

adri, I've always wanted to see Ritt's 1976 film The Front, which is about the blacklisting era. It's also notable for starring Woody Allen--a rare instance of him starring and not directing.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Frank Langella is crazy--this is one of Newman's best performances. I think he's more convincing here than as Brick.

Nathaniel--agreed that this is an under-seen and under-appreciated film by a younger film-loving crowd. Maybe it's just hard to access (although my local library had the DVD right on the shelf.) I believe that's true for many films made in the late 50s and 60s. A friend of mine who loves Bond, The Godfather, and action/heist films has never seen The French Connection.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I guess Frank Langella never saw Newman in the "Hustler" either. The problem with Newman was that acting was easy for him. No one was better at playing tormented characters and he did it effortlessly. IMO Newman along with Burt Lancaster are the two best actors, I ever watched.

December 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeckbug

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