Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love_With_The_Proper_Stranger.jpegAt first glance, this doesn’t seem like the type of picture suited for Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood. He was “The King of Cool.” She was a major player from childhood in numerous classics. Neither was what most people considered a serious actor. They were movie stars. They had charisma and general appeal to the viewing public.

What we have here is a stark slice-of-life scenario. Even put in the context of her Italian family unit Wood feels slightly out of place. It’s the kind of portrayal that worked for Ernest Borgnine in Marty (1955) and other such pictures. The same if not more can be said of Steve McQueen with his parents. He’s hardly an Italian. But the chemistry is there and that’s almost more important.

Any criticisms or preconceptions aside there must be credit paid to our stars. All power to them for wanting to be in this picture and casting aside what might have been more glamorous material for something that might stretch their acting chops. Because in the mid-50s and onward we were beginning to see a more honest strain of drama in Hollywood films. I would hesitate to call this film complete realism but there’s a candid quality that’s unquestionable.

Love With The Proper Stranger manages to put a narrative to the kind of hushed up realities that needed to be brought to the light. It’s part daring, part matter-of-fact in its actual execution. Because in merely acknowledging its subject matter, even in a minor fashion, it starts a conversation that can lead to some sort of human understanding.

You see, the film opens in a bustling union hall where a freelance musician named Rocky (Steve McQueen) gets paged by someone. He comes face-to-face with a girl. He can’t remember her name but the face is familiar. There’s a smile of recognition. The reason she came to see him catches him off guard though. She wants to ask him to find her a doctor. Because you see, they had a one night stand (the title proves a poetic euphemism) and she’s pregnant. The rest you can put together for yourself. His reaction is not what she wanted.

And so that’s how they reconnect. At first, strained and then looking to gather enough funds to pay the doctor to get it done. They’re genial enough and understanding after the initial encounter. That’s part of what’s striking. Love With The Proper Stranger chooses to traverse a generally understated road in lieu of melodramatics.

Sure, she’s a sales clerk at Macy’s and her family is devoutly Catholic with her older brothers often nagging her to get married. And he’s broke and shacked up with a nightclub dancer (Edie Adams) who runs a doggy kennel in her apartment. Still, that’s all just white noise or at least only shading to what’s really of interest.

One of the most indicative moments occurs when they’re staked out in some god-forsaken rundown warehouse and they open up about romance as they wait for their appointment. Their assertions are meant to make us understand them better but what we are provided is a level-headed dialogue that wears cynicism openly while honestly trying to figure out if love, kisses, and marriage, all those things that the movies and music seem to romanticize are even worth it after all.

During the very same conversation, Wood’s character confesses, “All I felt was scared and disgusted with myself.” Nothing more. Waiting for the bells and the banjos to sound doesn’t work. And when they go to the shady meetup and get funneled to a backroom it’s not any prettier. In fact, it’s probably worse. And it’s these moments that grieve me and pain my spirit. That anyone would have to deal with such an unfeeling environment. It’s not about condoning their behavior or not but being truthful to the way things actually are.

Meanwhile, the film’s latter half is decidedly lighter as if our main characters have settled into the new reality at hand. I suppose that’s the way real life is. It keeps on moving no matter the circumstances. Whatever decisions you have chosen and whomever you pick to live your life with.

Angie rebuffs his gallant proposal of marriage, finds her own apartment, and doesn’t complain about the road ahead. She didn’t need him to fall on his sword or take his medicine. Whatever apt metaphor you choose. That’s not her idea of a sound union. Instead, she tries to content herself with a well-meaning cook named Anthony (Tom Bosley) while Rocky piddles around discontentedly. The directness of the story allows us to dig in; it’s the comic tones of the unwinding romance that guide us to the end. Our leads see it through splendidly with a charming grace that’s collected and still sincere.

Although he will never earn much repute because his offerings are generally low-key, I will continue to do my best in cultivating an appreciation for Robert Mulligan as a director, as well as Alan Pakula. Not that they were quite as socially conscious as a Stanley Kramer or as intent on pushing boundaries like an Otto Preminger but To Kill Mockingbird (1962) and this picture are both statements of quality in themselves.

In fact, it’s rather bewildering that despite the names above the title, an immersive setting in New York’s Little Italy, and a genuine storyline, Love With The Proper Stranger is easily glossed over. Maybe it goes back to our stars. It’s not as monumental as The Great Escape (1963) or The Great Race (1965). And it’s not lauded to the degree of West Side Story (1961) or Bullitt (1966). That’s okay. It has no bearing on whether you enjoy it or not.

Not to undercut everything that I’ve already said but I’ve waited long enough. The final question I was left with is whether or not Natalie Wood was still friends with Santa Claus working at Macy’s. But then again, maybe in the world she finds herself in, Santa can’t fix all her problems. I suppose that’s okay too.

4/5 Stars

Review: Airplane! (1980)

754a5-airplane2In the wake of Jaws came another film almost just as riveting in its intense thrills and human drama. Let’s hear it for Airplane! Okay, well it may be the farthest thing from a real melodrama, but that does not take away from the good ol’ fashioned fun of it all. It’s quirky. It’s goofy. And it has the prototypical ZAZ humor laden with sight gags and boatloads of puns with an accompanying score courtesy of everyone’s favorite comic composer Elmer Bernstein.

The faux drama stems from former war pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who has an aversion to flying due to his devastating experiences and a drinking problem to boot. Now all he does is drive a taxi, and it has cost him his love, the airline stewardess Elaine (Julie Hagerty), who lost all faith in him because he lost confidence in himself. Things used to be so marvelous when they first met in the throes of romance and yet…

Who am I kidding? This film hardly has any plot, but instead, it’s one big excuse for often childish, sometimes innuendo-filled, off the wall antics. Seriously though, Airplane! rifts off a lot of things from gushy romances, to disaster films, and old Hollywood serials. But this plane is only a vehicle for gags. There’s a whole scene about a little girl who is deathly ill just so Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) can say over the telephone resolutely, “Give me ham on five hold the mayo.”

Then there’s co-pilot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moonlighting as Roger Murdoch. He eventually breaks out of character following the nagging of a little boy named Joey (You try dragging Walton and Lanier down the court)! Why is he even in this film? We don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it’s hilarious.

There’s a kiss parodied straight out of From Here to Eternity, an appearance by the always loud-mouthed Ethel Merman, and even a jab at incumbent president Ronald Reagan. And of course who else would know how to speak jive with the two African-American passengers but June Cleaver or Barbara Billingsley? I’m not sure which one is funnier.

What stands out most about this film is all of its old vets playing this insanely wacky film straight. From Peter Graves to Leslie Nielsen on the plane, to Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges down in the tower, their performances are priceless.

By the way, what ever happened to that guy in the taxi? If I’m not mistaken the meter’s still running.

4/5 Stars

“We have clearance, Clarence.”
“Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”