Sometimes what seems to be a conflict between living for oneself and living for the social good is more complicated on closer examination. 1963's Hud, a movie about a cattle ranch hit by sudden, monstrously bad fortune, presents a weary patriarch in conflict with his philandering, loose-principled son. Shot in stark black and white with a haunting score by Elmer Bernstein, the film actually features very few instances of characters executing their own will, leaving a curious void around the central conflict. This has the advantage of highlighting the fundamental humanity of the characters as they suffer a purgatory that starts to look a lot like Hell.
Presented as the film’s moral centre is a teenage boy named Lonnie (Brandon deWilde). His conflict is in choosing between two father figures in his grandfather, Homer (Melvyn Douglas), the owner of the ranch, and his uncle, Hud (Paul Newman), Homer’s son and nemesis.
Hud is handsome and charming, often given to selfish, drunken pronouncements and with a reputation for sleeping with other men’s wives all over town. When Hud asks Homer why he’s nursed a grudge against him for so long he assures Homer he won’t “give a damn” either way. Homer replies that this is exactly it—it’s the impression that Hud doesn’t give a damn. Yet the fact that Hud retreats to the kitchen to angrily shed tears over a beer suggests this isn’t so.
A fourth character rounds out the dramatic conflict; a beautiful, worldly housekeeper called Alma, played by Patricia Neal in a truly remarkable performance. There’s a brilliantly played sexual tension between her and Hud though it culminates in the one instance of Hud definitely doing something vile. Drunk one evening after a fight with Homer, he tries to rape her. In this instance, he’s not just talk.
Most of the time, talk is all his wickedness amounts to. At one point he announces he’s going to get Homer declared mentally unfit to oversee his property in order to gain the inheritance but he never actually follows through with this.
Wikipedia quotes director Martin Ritt and star Paul Newman as saying that Hud was intended to be an antihero, someone we’re ultimately meant to despise. Yet in attempting not to be too heavy-handed they’ve left a lot in Hud’s favour, like the fact that he continues to publicly support every decision Homer makes regarding the farm and works hard to make sure the old man’s wishes are carried out.
Mostly this involves a horrible situation imposed by monstrously bad luck—a recent purchase of cattle from Mexico has resulted in all Homer’s stock being struck by an epidemic of foot and mouth disease. Government men tell Homer he’s going to have to slaughter them all—Hud suggests they sell them all quickly before anyone finds out. But, again, despite an argument with Homer, Hud doesn’t actually do anything against the old man. Is it loyalty? Or does Hud realise what exposing other cattle stocks to the virus would mean for the industry? We never know why exactly Hud doesn’t act on his idea.
The presented conflict takes on a political tone when Homer directly speaks against the idea of giving too much sympathy to Hud—because there’s a danger in too many people admiring, and voting for, men like Hud. Yet Hud is portrayed as so human by Paul Newman and Homer as so severe by Melvyn Douglas we’re forced to contemplate just how wicked Hud is at heart. The cycle of Hud feeling isolated, unable to confront his feelings, self medicating with alcohol, and then acting rashly under inebriation—to be isolated again by bis behaviour—doesn’t excuse Hud. But it compels the viewer to wonder if sympathy is such a bad idea after all.
Hud is available on Amazon Prime.