Director: Martin Ritt
Starring: Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde
Hud Bannon is “the man with the barbed wire soul,” a man without principle, a man who never met a person he would think twice about being mean to. He also – inexplicably as far as his portrayer, Paul Newman, was concerned – became a figure of worship in popular culture, a man that younger men wanted to become (in Midnight Cowboy Joe Buck has the famed poster of Hud on his wall). This isn’t the absolute best movie Newman ever made (for me that would be Cool Hand Luke), but of all his performances, this one is my favourite.
Hud is a ne’er do well whose sole interests are women, drinking and fighting, and not always in that order. He lives on a cattle ranch with his father (Melvyn Douglas), his nephew Lon (Brandon De Wilde), and their housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal), with whom he enjoys a charged rapport. Hud and his father have a fractured relationship which seems to inform the way that he relates to all other people: fearing rejection, he keeps everyone at a distance, though he longs desperately for companionship.
Problems between Hud and his father reach a crescendo as Hud begins spending more time with Lon, passing on his bad habits, and after a cow dies under mysterious circumstances. The fear is that the cow has succumbed to foot and mouth disease and that the rest of the heard will have to be slaughtered to avoid an epidemic. Hud wants to sell off the cattle before the government can declare them unfit, but his father refuses and they eventually have a confrontation in which he reveals that his dislike of Hud doesn’t stem from the accident which killed Lon’s father, but rather from his lack of character. It’s this lack of character, the refusal to care about anything other than himself, that ensures that Hud will end up exactly where he does: all alone.
The performances make the movie, with all four of the principles delivering solid, nuanced portrayals. Newman ambles seductively through the film, alternating between easy going banter and angry sulking. Rejected by his father, he lashes out at him but remains desperate from some kind of approval from him. When his father makes his brutal proclamation, all Hud can do is throw up his hands and say with a mixture of anger and sadness, “My mama loved me but she died.” Newman hits a complex series of notes throughout the film, making for a character who is difficult to like most of the time, but also compelling in the way that someone who is his own worst enemy can be compelling.
As for the other three, De Wilde is solid playing a young man who finds himself caught between wanting to do the right things like his grandfather, but also seduced in a way by his uncle, who just seems so cool; Neal is wonderful as the no nonsense housekeeper who is drawn to Hud despite knowing better and the scenes between her and Newman crackle with electricity (“Don’t go shootin’ all the dogs 'cause one of 'em’s got fleas,” Hud drawls while lying across her bed); and Douglas is simply marvellous. He’s an actor I find myself consistently surprised by: the actor who plays the worn down old man here is the same as the one who played Garbo’s elegant romantic foil in Ninotchka and the difference can’t be attributed solely to age. Douglas won an Oscar for his work here, as did Neal, and Newman was nominated as Best Actor, but lost to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field. If you’ve never seen this movie, I can’t recommend it more. Rarely do you get the chance to watch four great actors, all at the top of their form, playing off of each other like this.