An Unprincipled Man

Hud (1963)

illustration by Tom Ralston

On August 13, 1963, the San Angelo Standard-Times reported that the American cattle industry was bracing for a potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Impacting any hoofed livestock, foot-and-mouth is “one of the most dreaded diseases of animals,” the Standard-Times attested. There is no way to treat or combat the disease, and so “it is necessary to destroy and bury all infected and exposed susceptible animals.” The last American outbreak had taken place 34 years earlier, in 1929. In 1946, the US had spent $135 million (the equivalent of about $1.3 billion in 2022) helping quell an outbreak in Mexico. And now, as the disease became endemic among French cattle, the United States Department of Agriculture watched the eastern coast of Canada for a potential influx of infected cows, an event that could devastate an entire North American industry.

Foot-and-mouth disease is the rot at the core of Hud, Martin Ritt’s neo-Western morality tale released three months before the Standard-Times report. Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), the aging rancher who puts pride and piety above all else, finds one cow dead of the disease, necessitating the immediate extermination of the entire herd, and, thus, his livelihood. But Homer’s son, Hud (Paul Newman), urges a different path: “Unload ‘em up north,” Hud insists, “before the news gets out.” This thoroughly amoral man is now proposing the most craven act he can muster: cash out for fear of being wiped out, even if it means triggering an epidemic. “This whole country is run on epidemics,” Hud crows. “Big business price fixin’, crooked TV shows, income tax finaglin’, souped-up expense accounts.” In a world that’s stacked against goodness, what’s the virtue in being good?

“You got all that charm going for you,” Homer will tell Hud later. “That’s the shame of it—‘cause you don’t value nothin’, you don’t respect nothin’.” Throughout Hud’s daylight scenes, cinematographer James Wong Howe shoots the modern west with a palette rich in shades of gray. In nighttime scenes like this, though, those grays are set against thick pools of darkness. “You live just for yourself,” Hud’s father sighs. “And that makes you not fit to live with.”

Hud, Pauline Kael wrote in her review, is “just possibly the most completely schizoid movie produced anywhere anytime.” As he would bemoan for the rest of his life, Ritt—along with screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., adapting Larry McMurtry’s 1961 debut novel, Horseman, Pass By—had intended to make a film taking the side of Homer and the impressionable Lon (Brandon De Wilde), Homer’s grandson and Hud’s nephew. Hud was meant to be the ultimate heel, condemned to a life of loneliness for his brashness and brutishness—though Ritt did concede that his title character was a charming devil. “Most effective bastards are like that,” as Ritt said at the American Film Institute in 1974

Charming though he may be, Hud is fundamentally painted as villainous; not only does he accept the prospect of becoming patient zero for a ranching blight, not only does he favor drunken brawls and other men’s wives, but by the third act he has descended as far as attempted rape—all of which led to Ritt’s immense dismay once he began receiving reams of mail in support of Newman’s “major heel.” Kael described observing a similar enjoyment among young audiences, who flocked to the film (so Kael surmised) to enjoy Hud’s misdeeds, glorifying what Ritt had meant to condemn. Rather than young viewers having missed the point, though, Kael asserted that it was Ritt, Ravetch, and Frank who labored under delusions: “Hud,” she wrote, “may be the only time the general audience has understood film-makers better than they understood themselves.”

Naturally, one major reason that audiences were drawn more to Hud than to Lon and Homer is the fact that Hud looks and acts like Paul Newman, a strapping 38 at the time of the film’s release. Newman brings an ease and naturalism to this consummate bastard, layering in grace notes like a mischievous tip of the hat while antagonizing Lon, or some seductive flower play while flirting with Homer’s housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal). These flourishes prove magnetic in a way that the more staid, classical performance styles of Douglas and De Wilde can’t hope to match; Newman ably carries the torch of fellow Actors Studio alumnus James Dean, freighting his performance with naturalistic brooding and a heartthrob’s pathos even as he approaches middle age. And, of course, there are those eyes, which seem to glow like high beams when Hud suffers his father’s denigration and rejection, or wrestles with the memory of his beloved brother’s death—a vehicular mishap in which an inebriated Hud was tragically complicit. 

Lon is positioned as the audience surrogate, simultaneously intrigued and frightened by Hud. Audiences, though, “didn’t like the kid,” Ritt grumbled at the American Film Institute, looking back on the film’s surprising reception. De Wilde plays the boy with such aggressive anti-charisma that he becomes impossible to identify with; when Lon accompanies his grandfather to the pictures,1 Homer observes that Lon is the only young man there without a date, to which the boy responds, “I can stand it.” The line is ambiguous on the page, but De Wilde puffs out his chest in the delivery, practically bragging of his celibacy. Such commitment to purity renders our protagonist dramatically inert; like Homer, Lon embodies stoic nobility—a “simple, young dignity,” as Ravetch and Frank wrote of his disposition—but that nobility exists in opposition to little active antagonism. Simple dignity may be an admirable trait, but it hardly translates to compelling characterization.

The only performer to match Newman for naturalism and pathos is Neal, whose Alma serves as housekeeper and den mother to the uneasy trio of Bannon men. And it’s in his relationship with Alma that Hud becomes worse than a heel. “You know a man finally by what he does,” Ritt insisted later, “not by…how blue his eyes are.” And what Hud does is sexually assault Alma, a scene so savage that Ritt and Howe break their otherwise restrained visual scheme: Hud’s attempted rape is shot with handheld camerawork, jump cuts, and blurring focus, a breach in filmic propriety that’s in keeping with Hud’s shocking betrayal.

If Hud argues (unconvincingly) for the moral ambiguity of his proposed cattle sale, his assault upon Alma leaves absolutely no shades of gray. Thus, while Hud can arguably be understood based on the excessive tragedy of his personal history—as he sneers at his father, the majority of his family did love him, they just happen to have died, leaving him stranded with the only relation who doesn’t—he’s a difficult character to identify with, despite what Kael and Ritt may have believed. “If I’d been near as smart as I thought I was,” Ritt said later, “I would have seen that Haight-Abshbury was right around the corner. The kids were very cynical; they were committed to their own appetites, and that was it.” The remark is somewhat self-aggrandizing—though Ritt may disavow his own active foresight, there’s a mild brag inherent to believing that your work has predicted cultural trends—even as it drips with cynicism. The word appetite recurs throughout Ritt’s retrospective interviews (in 1983, he diagnosed Hud as “committed to his appetite and only his appetite”), while for Kael, the buzzword was materialism (she described the film as “a celebration and glorification of materialism…which probably appeals to movie audiences just because it confirms their own feelings”). Yet neither term seems entirely apt in summarizing the appeal of both Hud and Hud. Instead, it would seem most likely that the character’s deeply ingrained distrust of authority—both governmental and paternal—spoke directly to the young people of the early ‘60s. 

Hud’s monologue on the epidemics undergirding the nation syncs well with the decade’s oncoming disillusionments; uttered a year before the Vietnam draft was instituted, Hud’s plan for Homer’s cattle may be unsound, but his distrust of the governing order is difficult to argue against. Based purely on its allegorical value, the battle between father and son is weighted unfairly against the patriarch. Homer represents the stoic spirit of the disappearing old West, his two prized longhorns overtly pegged as symbolizing a fading iconography. Thus, Hud, in opposition, stands for progress, and a future that might well be brighter. Ritt, then nearing 50, may have seen poignance in Homer’s plight, a man reckoning with the reality that his homeland is (to coin a phrase) no country for old men. For young viewers, however, this message—things were better in the past, but it’s gone for good—serves little useful function. As detestable as Hud’s behavior may be, it’s even more difficult to root for his embittered co-lead, a man who’d rather suffer bankruptcy than accept the modern solution of drilling his land for oil. For lack of much worth admiring in Lon or Homer, Hud exists as the viable alternative, and when the film closes on his visage—the last man standing after Homer has died and Lon and Alma have been driven off—he at least stands on the precipice of change, a desire for which would characterize the remainder of the decade.

It’s a “slightly perverse ending,” Kael wrote, but she also reported that her audience enjoyed the surprise of it. So, too, did Kael find herself surprised by how personally relatable the film was. Though located in northern California, she had grown up on a ranch, and recognized her lifestyle in this “ludicrous real west.” As the bronco-riding cowpoke was replaced by the Cadillac-driving hotshot, men like Hud became the norm, while boys like Lon were non-existent—the film’s ostensible protagonist, to Kael, was a “blank sheet of paper…handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.” By virtue of Hud’s base relatability, Kael argued for nuance in understanding Newman’s character. Pushing back against Bosley Crowther’s characterization of Hud as a dangerous social predator, Kael presented her own father, “who was adulterous, and…like Hud, was opposed to any government interference.” Her father, though, “was generous and kind, and democratic in the western way.” Even Hud’s appetites were understandable to Kael as symptomatic of an understimulating lifestyle on an understimulating landscape.2

Ritt, Ravetch, and Frank cared more for symbol than subtlety, and nowhere is this more evident than in the extermination of Homer’s herd. The symbolism isn’t hard to fathom: the lifeblood of the old west has been so degraded that it’s now blighted, and there’s no choice but to dispassionately execute an entire way of life. Yet the sequence has tended to carry greater weight than a simple poetically-infused narrative lynchpin. Seeing cows herded into a mass grave and shot from above, audiences were inclined to suggest that Ritt had played upon cultural association with the mass graves of the Holocaust. However, Ritt, who was Jewish, was surprised by this unintended interpretation, which he felt would have served to “exploit…the horror and revulsion” of imagery associated with the Second World War. Yet how could one watch Hud’s extermination scene and fail to envision humans in the place of Ritt’s cattle?3

Directorial intent, in the end, is only half the issue. Hud exists in one form in the pages of Ravetch and Frank’s script, but he’s animated by Newman’s breath of life, which elevates him into a more complex creation, one imbued with the humanity of a sympathetic actor, a far more meaningful influence on a film’s feeling than a plainly sympathetic character. Ritt may have chafed at how his film was received, but the gulf between reception and intent only testifies to the complexity of the product. The viewer might cast about looking for a character to latch onto, but the story’s lack of simple identification points aligns it with life in a way that neither a pure morality play nor an openly cynical anti-moral tale could muster. No character is to blame for the sick cattle, meaning the central question of Hud becomes that of how to deal with extraordinarily bad luck. Homer chooses his pride only to see even that stripped from him: he dies after crawling across a moonlit highway, while the remaining three ensemble members each take some step into an ambiguous and lonely future. Hud is a film with hard choices and few clear answers—and perhaps this ultimately accounts for its cult appeal among a youth culture who would soon usher in a morally ambiguous New Hollywood. 

“Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire,” Homer says in decrying Hud, and the same is true of our cinema. Shades of gray were on their way in, and with Hud, the piercing white light of Paul Newman’s eyes served as the headlights on the road to come.

  1. Hud is set in Thalia, TX the same fictional town that serves as stage for McMurtry’s 1966 novel, The Last Picture Show, meaning that any viewer so inclined could mentally pluck Sonny, Jacy, and Duane from Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation and place them in the picture-show audience alongside Lon and Homer.
  2. Kael pushed for nuance in reading Hud’s attempted rape, an effort that rings uncomfortably from any vantage.
  3. Ravetch and Frank, for their part, were attuned to the resonance: ”The undertone was clearly intended,” Frank said in 2003.