Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty-Eight

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#48 — Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)
Eight years before Peter Bogdanovich’s exceptional adaptation of The Last Picture Show, writer Larry McMurtry had his first dalliance with the silver screen when his debut novel, 1961’s Horseman, Pass By, was transformed into Hud. This film holds a defining star turn by Paul Newman and an astonishing, Oscar-winning performance by Patricia Neal. It also inspired a vital early essay by Pauline Kael in which she laid bare her own conflicted feelings about the work in such compelling terms that it was one of the cornerstones of her legend and could legitimately lay claim to being the starter pistol shot in the evolution of film criticism. All those facets are significant enough to make Hud an important film, even if all the orbiting significance partially obscures the unassuming soundness of the storytelling. But I bring up the later adaption for a specific reason. In the distance between Hud and The Last Picture Show, the transformation of American cinema can be measured.

Hud feels like a McMurtry work in its spareness, its directness, its elegy for a Western way of living that’s hanging on by its ranch-ravaged fingernails. Modernity has wiped away all vestiges of old-fashioned morality, and the cowboys are too taciturn to know how to properly mourn it. The setting of small town Texas growing weary with itself also binds Hud closely with The Last Picture Show. And yet Hud has a slightly different tone from many of the later films that, in one way or another, bore McMurtry’s ghostly signature. Where The Last Picture Show had an unhurried confidence in the potency of its languid emotions–by the early nineteen-seventies, films were allowed to murmur their fiercest moments–Hud still burns with an anxious urgency that’s like the phantom limb of bygone Hollywood melodramas. The movie is more Tennessee Williams than Terms of Endearment, bristling with the promise of bad, misguided actions to come. If Last Picture Show is the sigh of resignation, then Hud is the snapping of the femur that started the ugly descent.

There was perhaps no one better suited for this particular brand of antihero existential despair than Paul Newman, one of the last performers who drew equally from the stalwart certainty of studio system leading men and the brutish reality that Marlon Brando used to demolish acting’s distancing artifice. Those opposing instincts lent a natural sense of inner conflict to Newman’s performances during the fifties and sixties (when the utility of older styles of acting cratered in the seventies, Newman had difficulty finding his dramatic footing, a problem that lasted until he hit a new peak in the eighties with exemplary work in The Verdict and The Color of Money). He was an actor straddling two different eras, and the discomfort brought an added edge to his characters, often brimming with confidence but betraying their lingering uncertainty. Hud Bannon may not be the quintessential expression of that conflict, but he may represent the most dangerous manifestation of it.

Martin Ritt directs the film with a sharp professional’s authority, knowing when to press in and when to lean back and give his skilled cast the room to fill the screen. Cinematographer James Wong Howe shoots the film in beautiful black-and-white, itself a dying form as Technicolor splendor was increasingly a necessity rather than a choice. The film is invested with an ache that can’t quite be named, a profound dissatisfaction that suggested permanently stifled lives. Like its title character and its leading actor, Hud is somewhat lost in time, unable to fully slip away from the past and squinting nervously at the tumult of the future.

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