As if the Paul Newman-Martin Ritt collaboration Hud (1963) wasn’t great enough, the pair nearly outdo themselves with the revisionist Western (or is it…more on that later) Hombre that extends both actor and director’s run of 1960s anti-hero-driven narratives.
The first notable thing about Hombre, which is such an absurd example of stating the obvious, is that Paul Newman could really, really act. I mean, everyone knows him from Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, Butch Cassidy, etc, but it’s films like Hombre that for my money really show his range. Completely absent – and I mean completely – from Hombre is that famous Paul Newman smile. You know, the one on the pasta sauce. He erases it from his character – the half white, half Indian John Russell who’s hatred for the white man and the crimes perpetrated against Native Americans is quite apparent during what amounts to a stagecoach hold-up and subsequent trek in the desert. Strangely enough, this would be a really nice companion piece alongside the recently blogged about Sapphire.
It’s not just the absence of a smile. Newman’s Russell carries himself different than other Newman iterations. The posture is straighter, the loping gait is more of a tight, trot, the movements more calculated. He’s colder and it comes across through and through. It’s a virtuoso performance and one that doesn’t seem like it should work on paper (wait…Paul Newman plays an Indian…?).
The script, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel in perhaps his best book-to-screen, is filled with awesome one-liners. Some of my favorites:
“It’s a shock to grow old,” spoken by Fredric March’s Favor, a racist old man who’s exploitation sets much of the plot in motion. The line is delivered with such exhaustion and feeling that it requires sympathy despite what we know of Favor to that point.
“I wonder what hell’s gonna look like.” “We all die. It’s just a question of when.” This one’s between Russell and antagonist #2, Grimes (Richard Boone). It’s not only a great non-answer by Russell, who has the second line here, but it’s delivery is so flat and insouciant that it’s as though Russell has been harboring this answer for some time and just waiting for the right moment to use it.
And then, the best of them all, which requires some set-up. Russell and his fellow stagecoach-riders, whom he’s protecting are holed up in a small cabin at the top of a hill while Grimes and company surround them at the base. Grimes climbs the hill to make a deal. He wants the money Russell has. He offers a female hostage in return. Level-headed Mendez (Martin Balsam) convinces Russell to let him do the talking. But Russell can’t resist. Just as Grimes is done his pitch, Russell finally chimes in:
“I got a question.” Grimes stops his descent and looks back. Russell continues. “How you gonna get down that hill?”
Russell raises his gun. Grimes sees death. It’s a brilliant, spine-tingling line. It’s one that fully encompasses Russell’s complete nihilism when it comes to his own safety versus that of the “foreign enemy” antagonizing him, and it stops us as dead in our tracks as it does Grimes.
While Ritt really favors a bone-dry Western palette and a non-showy camera, there are some moments that are very well bocked. Here’s one. Favor, tired and thirsty, is directed to water hanging by the mineshaft. The shot starts with the water bag in the foreground and Favor in the background:
Ritt dollies right and pans left as Favor approaches, and then he continues his pan with Favor as the latter takes the bag:
Ritt ends the frame tight over Favor’s shoulder as Favor begins to drink. Gradually, in the distance, Grimes and company appear (bottom right image, frame left in the distance):
I like this shot because of what it accomplishes in a short amount of time. Framing the water in the foreground does some obvious things: it gives it importance and gives Favor a destination. Ending the shot over Favor’s shoulder seems at first to be an odd place to land and one expects a quick cut to a CU on Favor so we can register his relief as he drinks. Instead, Ritt takes the emphasis off said relief and places us right back in a place of tension.
It’s smart. Generally speaking, a deep depth of field with something close in the foreground opposite something far in the background (Favor and water; Favor and Grimes) yields an inherent tension. It’s like the image is pulling us in both directions and our gaze has no choice but to meet in the middle, presupposing a collision of sorts.
The further I got into this film, the more I began to suspect that this isn’t really a Western at all. Sure, it’s got the stock characteristics in terms of costume, location, props, characters, etc, and it also fits squarely in the midst of the the Spaghetti Western/New American Western revival (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was made in 1966, for example).
But Hombre seems to fit more neatly into a Newman-Ritt trilogy of almost genre films. Those three would be The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Hud (1963), and Hombre (1967). The Outrage and Paris Blues don’t quite fit the bill, and I have yet to see Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man.
These three films all have the aforementioned traits, but don’t seem particularly interested in revising the great American west, in dispelling popular cinematic, historical, or literary notions, or, for that matter, just fitting comfortably into the same fold that predecessors from John Ford and Howard Hawks carved out. Sure, Hombre deals with the West and the landscape as characters, and sure it certainly deals with the less-publicized plight of the Native Americans, but its real insistence is on the consummation of Newman as final 3rd of a character installment that sees him go from smoldering, sweaty Ben Quick, to unpredictable, sweaty Hud Bannon, to taciturn, sweaty John Russell. Later into the 60s and for this trilogy Newman is stripped of romanticism. He’s close to his character in Cool Hand Luke (of the same year), but without the winks and the devious grin. Here he’s the end of an evolution for Ritt whose career won’t reach another peak until 1976’s The Front and will never be as hard-edged and cynical.