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

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Every time I return to Breakfast at Tiffany’s certain things become more and more evident. Mickey Rooney’s characterization as Mr. Yunioshi is certainly an egregious blot on this film, but if you look around the nooks and crannies, it’s full of quirky sorts who can be described as weak caricatures at best. Buddy Ebsen and Patricia Neal are wonderful actors but for some reason, they feel out of place in this one. I love Martin Balsam too but he’s not quite right either.

Still, all those complaints go away when I see those opening shots. If a film is defined purely by its opening sequence, this would be one of the most sublime films of the 20th century. Because watching Audrey Hepburn walk the silent streets of New York right outside of Tiffany’s is as good as it gets. There’s a perfect cadence to the sequence. We learn so much about the character of Holly Golightly in a few short moments and New York has never been a more magical place — as hushed as it is when her solitary taxi pulls up to the curbside.

Moon River lends a beautiful melancholy to the sequence and it’s absolutely marvelous. But then the illusion is broken when Holly gets home chased by a caricature of a man and accosted by her caricature of a landlord. The yellow face is deeply unfortunate but to a lesser extent so are many of the other portrayals.

Because it’s so easy to care for Holly. Audrey Hepburn makes us care for this woman who doesn’t quite understand what it is to need other people, to love other people, and to be okay with that. She’s scatterbrained in all the best ways. By proxy, we like “Fred, Darling” (George Peppard) because he is a stand-in for the audience as we get to know her better. He’s conflicted but also mesmerized by her like we are. She’s truly something special. And all the affection that we hold for her is because she is Audrey Hepburn. We cannot help but love her — unless I’m just speaking for myself — which easily could be the case.

Still, Truman Capote’s source novel was a very different animal and it could have become a very different film altogether with Marilyn Monroe initially slotted to star. But with her sweet smile and demure image, Hepburn brought something of herself to the role. Still sweet but more extroverted and out there.

It’s easy to peg this as her best performance because it does have so much character and her wardrobe by Givenchy becomes a perfect extension of Holly Golightly. In every sequence, she’s impeccably dressed and even when she’s in her pajamas she looks ready for a night out on the town. But of course, with all of those nights on the town, she’s come to her conclusions about men. They’re all either “rats” or “super rats” only looking out for themselves.

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Holly winds up with her cat and the man who wants to love her, perhaps even the man that she deserves. Anyways he’s probably the closest thing she can achieve in the cinematic landscape at hand. However, it is unfortunate that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not quite the film that Audrey Hepburn deserved. It rightfully so galvanized her iconic status for the ensuing generations. It’s only a shame that the film is not a greater achievement than it is, settling instead to be a generally light and diverting romcom from  Blake Edwards.

But do yourself a favor and listen to Moon River again and again on repeat. The version doesn’t matter too much whether Mancini, Andy Williams or Hepburn herself. It’s one of the most remarkably mellifluous tunes of all time and truly worthy of Audrey Hepburn’s performance in this one.

4/5 Stars

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

911a0-day_the_earth_stood_still_1951Starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie with direction by Robert Wise, this sci-fi film begins with the landing of a mysterious alien space craft in Washington D. C. At first nothing seems to happen and the whole country is tense. Then an extra-terrestrial named Klaatu gets off followed by his giant cohort Gort. He comes in peace but he is wounded by a frightened gun. From that point he is taken to a hospital but his only mission is to warn the world that they must change their ways. 

Klaatu gets away from the hospital and he takes up the identity of one Carpenter in order to integrate himself so he can give the people his message. He ends up befriending a widowed lady and her small boy with his quiet kindness.  

His goal is still to deliver a message to the leaders of the world and the man he wants to speak to is Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). When he finally is able to talk, he warns against the use of atomic power, because other planets have become apprehensive and will surely neutralize the earth if they do not stop.

He is followed by Bobby and Klaatu finally reveals his true identity to Helen. Soon he shuts down all the non-essential power across the country, and when the chaos dies down, the manhunt for the culprit intensifies.

In his final entreaty before leaving earth Klaatu pleads with the people:

“It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rest on you.”

So ends a film that was not just another sci-fi flying saucer movie of the 1950s. It was a representation of the atomic age and an indictment of the Cold War sentiment at the time. Klaatu in many ways becomes a Christ-like figure who calls for peace, takes the name “Carpenter,” and even rises from the dead. In many ways he saved humanity too, on the day the earth stood still.

4/5 Stars

Hud (1963)

Starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon de Wilde, the film revolves around a principled, old Texas rancher (Douglas) who has the help of his orphaned nephew Lonnie (de Wilde) and his troublesome son Hud (Newman). Most of the film reveals the conflict between the father and his impatient and often immoral son. On the other hand Lonnie looks at his uncle with admiration. Then the cattle ranch is jeopardized by the possibility of hoof and mouth disease. When not working Hud goes wild in town and after one such night in a drunken stupor he is berated by his father and then makes advances toward the house keeper (Neal). Ultimately, the news about the cattle finally comes and the aftermath leaves Mr. Bannon dead, the housekeeper gone, and Lonnie on the road, with Hud all alone on his ranch. The primary actors were all very good and the black and white cinematography was especially striking.

4.5/5 Stars

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, the movie follows the lavish lifestyle of the ditsy Holly Golightly. Moving into her apartment building, the down-on-his-luck writer Paul immediately grows fond of Holly’s quirky personality. Considering each other simply friends, Paul comes to one of Holly’s wild parties and they journey through New York together. However, although Paul is falling for Holly, his circumstances seem to prevent it and besides she is oblivious to his affection. Slowly they fall farther apart with Holly’s upcoming marriage to a wealthy man. In the end they do reconcile, embracing in the rain (of course). Holly has finally found a man who truly loves her and does not use her. The love story is an interesting one and Hepburn gives a lively performance. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” is a wonderful addition to this film. I would say however that this is not my favorite film with Hepburn because it is certainly hard to top Roman Holiday.

Needless to say, this is a film that I have a difficult time  making my mind up about. I will wholeheartedly admit that I enjoy Audrey Hepburn movies ranging from Roman Holiday and Sabrina to Charade and Wait Until Dark. Of all of her performances, Holly Golightly is arguably her most iconic. Perhaps this is because she played against her usual gracefully timid image or maybe it was  the memorable wardrobe put together by Givenchy. Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has some wonderful supporting actors such as Patricia Neal, Martin Balsalm, Buddy Epsen, and an unfortunately badly cast Mickey Rooney. I think I would conclude that if Tiffany’s was just composed of its beautiful opening sequence accompanied by Moon River and the final romantic moments, I would thoroughly enjoy it. However, some of the moments in the middle I suppose are not as memorable or downright strange, making this a far from perfect film. It is, however, still an enjoyable romantic comedy that showcases Audrey Hepburn and includes the best of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

4/5 Stars