Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Old West, the New West

Films: The Big Sky, Hud
Format: VHS from Kankakee Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television (The Big Sky), streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Hud).

Anyone who watches film becomes more attuned to some genres and less attuned to others. I like horror, for instance. I don’t watch a lot of musicals or romance films. It continues to surprise me how little I know of Westerns as well. I’d have thought I knew as much about them as any typical genre, but the more I look at, the more I see films that I should know and don’t.

I know that someone out there is convinced that I am not a complete filmgoing person until and unless I have seen The Big Sky, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why this is the case. I’m completely stumped as to why this film made the list when other 1952 films like The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Western Bend of the River didn’t. I don’t choose the movies, though, and this is what I’ve got. The Big Sky is a must-see, and so I saw it.

Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) lives in Kentucky, where he encounters Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin). Their friendship starts out Old West style, with Boone punching Jim in the face a couple of times for a few imagined slights, and Jim reacting to this with good-natured acceptance. See, we’ve established right away that these two guys are rough and tough, solve things by punching them, and see physical violence as an acceptable way to greet another person.

Anyway, they head off to Missouri to meet with Boone’s uncle, Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt, who also acts as the film narrator and sort of wishes he were Walter Brennan). The pair run afoul of some locals and get tossed into jail, where they find Zeb. Zeb is a trapper-type. He wears a lot of buckskin and has a lot of whiskers, and he is intensely disliked by the local fur trading company because he is an independent. The trio are bailed out of jail by Zeb’s partner Frenchy Jourdonnais (Steven Geray).

The plan is to take a keelboat up the Missouri to Blackfoot country. No white man has ever successfully traded with the Blackfoot tribes, but Zeb and Frenchy have a ace in the hole: Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt in her only film role). Teal Eye is a Blackfoot and the daughter of a chief. She was taken from her people and Zeb and Frenchy are returning her, using this act of not-quite charity as a way in to trade with the natives. In fact, Zeb calls her a hostage.

So Zeb, Frenchy, Boone, and Jim head upriver in a keelboat with a crew of French Canadian woodsmen. As they pull and paddle the boat for mile after mile, they encounter threats, difficulties, and setbacks. Their biggest problems are the Crow tribes, who have decided to attack them, and the fur trading company, which wants its trading monopoly and might well be behind the Crow attacks.

We also get some relationship things going on—Jim is initially attracted to Teal Eye. Boone, who hates Indians on principle, dislikes her. Teal Eye and Boone squabble over the fact that Boone possesses the scalp of a Blackfoot warrior; Zeb has told him it’s the scalp of the man who killed Boone’s brother. Teal Eye frequently tries to steal the scalp from him, and the two fight quite a bit. If you’ve ever seen a Western before, you should realize from their first encounter that Boone and Teal Eye are attracted to each other despite any misgivings they might have.

Really, that’s the whole film. The boat moves upriver. A problem is encountered. The problem is dealt with. The boat moves on.

Some of the problems are at least causes for some good action sequences. The major attack by the Crow, for instance, sees several members of the party getting separated from the boat. Zeb and Boone split off in one direction and make it back under heavy attack. Later, a somewhat insane and whisky-obsessed guide named Poordevil (Hank Worden) makes it back at night, saying that Jim is still out there with the Crow. Boone runs off to find his friend and is tailed by Teal Eye. They find him, patch the bullet wound in his leg, and hide out for a week before rejoining the party in what results in the best confrontation in the film.

There’re also some attempts at showing not only our heroes’ toughness, but also the realities of trail life. After a minor accident, Jim finds that one of his fingers on his left hand is completely numb and no longer bends. Rather than leave it flopping around, the other members of the boat crew get him roaring drunk and then amputate it. The scene is played for humor, but that humor sits over something relatively grisly.

But for all of this, it’s a pretty standard Western. We have good guys who are tough beyond all measure of toughness. We have bad guys who essentially act exactly like the good guys do, but since they are opposed to the heroes, they are bad. The aims of Frenchy and Zeb and the aims of the trading company are, after all, the same thing—they want to trade with the natives upriver. What we’re led to believe is that as independents, Zeb and Frenchy won’t cheat the ignorant natives, but this isn’t the case. At one point during the trading scenes, Zeb comments that Frenchy will probably never get furs for a better price again in his life.

And then there’s the romance part of the film. The love triangle was an interesting addition, but wasn’t played up as much as it could have been. Really, the triangle exists only for those unfamiliar with film convention—the actual romance between Boone and Teal Eye was decided the moment that we know Boone dislikes Indians and that there’s an Indian woman aboard the keelboat.

I like my films a little more complex, a little more interesting, a little less predictable. The Big Sky is a fine Western, but it wouldn’t make my top 10, or probably my top 20. The scenery is pretty, and the on-location shooting is great, but other than that, you’ve seen this all before. It’s telling that this film doesn’t have a DVD release in the States. From what I’ve seen of Howard Hawks, this is the least of his films to reach canonization.

On the other hand, the value of Hud is almost immediately evident. Within the first 20 minutes of this film, I knew I was watching something that would stay with me and that had classic status for a reason. It’s not merely the iconic landscape of the Texas Panhandle, nor is it the fact that the film features the twist of taking place in the modern day rather than the classic Western period. No, this is a film about the characters and about the performances.

Hud (Paul Newman) is a layabout and a wastrel, interested only in his own pleasures and having enough money to pursue them. This puts him greatly at odds with his father, Homer (Melvyn Douglas), who is upright and upstanding. Homer runs a cattle ranch, and doesn’t much like the life his son leads. Also on the ranch is Hud’s nephew Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde), who is torn between the two adult male role models in his life. One the one hand he is attracted to the freewheeling lifestyle of Hud, but he also sees the necessity and value of Homer’s morality and honesty. The fourth member of the ranch house is Alma (Patricia Neal), the middle-aged housekeeper. Both Hud and Lonnie find themselves attracted to Alma, who was left by her husband years before, and is just hard-bitten enough to not really be that interested in the lecherous Hud or the too-young Lonnie.

Into the middle of the family drama comes the incident that sets off all the problems. Homer has discovered one of his cows dead in the middle of the ranch with no apparent cause of death. Fearing the worst, he calls for the vet despite Hud’s warnings, and it turns out to be the worst possible situation—hoof and mouth disease. The old man bought a few dozen Mexican cattle on the cheap and rather than quarantine them, he mixed them in with his entire herd. This means that the entire herd needs to be slaughtered, destroying the family business. The best insight we get into Homer is during these moments—driving his entire herd into a hole dug into the ground and ordering them shot. Later, with two cows that he raised from calves left, Homer watches them for a few moments, then walks out calmly to add them to the body count as well.

Hud sees this as his golden opportunity, and starts proceedings to essentially have the old man declared incompetent so that he can take over the ranch himself. It also comes out that Lonnie’s dad—Hud’s brother Norman—was killed in a car accident caused by Hud. For Hud, this has been the thing between him and his father for the past dozen years or so, but Homer’s resentments run quite a bit deeper.

What makes Hud work is not the situation of the ranch or the unexpressed emotion between Alma and Lonnie and between Alma and Hud. All of the trouble and problems that happen here are there so that we can see the lives of these people boil over. In terms of this, the film belongs to Lonnie, since it is he who is the one character capable of determining the course of his future. Homer’s life is the way it is; Hud is a man Homer dislikes, but Hud is his own man and chose his own life. Lonnie is stuck between them, between living the life he knows is correct and the life that looks tempting and fun. It’s a sort of coming of age film in that sense despite the fact that Newman’s character almost always takes center stage.

More than anything, it is the performances that truly sell this film and make it what it is. Homer is the sort of gruff patriarch we might expect, but he has enough personality and individuality to make him a unique character. Lonnie is a typical teen—confused, excited, wanting to please, and wanting to give in to his natural urges. Alma wants only to be taken seriously for what she does and otherwise left alone by the men until she’s ready. And Hud. In a career of incredible performances, this one is one of Newman’s most memorable, most powerful, and best. The character comes across as a sort of primer for Luke in Cool Hand Luke. He’s more intense than Luke, but also less subtle. Still, this is Newman at his best.

Paul Newman won an Oscar for his role in the otherwise forgettable The Color of Money. The reason he won for that film is because he didn’t win for The Hustler or Cool Hand Luke or Hud despite being nominated for all three (and he was additionally nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Absence of Malice and The Verdict and received a nomination for supporting actor for Road to Perdition). It’s my contention that it would be seen as another stain on the Academy if Newman never won after that many nominations—sort of like how Hitchcock never won Best Director.

In addition to the strength of the central performances (both Patricia Neal and Mervyn Douglas did win gold statues), much of what makes Hud so attractive is the overall look of the film. The stark black-and-white photography paints the world of the Texas Panhandle in exactly the shades that our characters see them. For Homer, the world is one of black and white-morality or indolence. For Hud, black and white is also the theme—what benefits him and what doesn’t. And yet for Lonnie, the world is filled with various shades of grey as he determines which of these two men he should follow. The landscape is one of empty spaces and open sky, big country where the horizon runs unbroken. In color, this would be beautiful, but in black-and-white, it looks harsh and unyielding. Hud is another film that benefits from the choice of avoiding color photography.

Great film, great performances, great photography. Hud breaks some genre stereotypes and is all the better because of it.

Why to watch The Big Sky: Great on-location filming and a few exciting sequences.
Why not to watch: Predictable and straightforward.

Why to watch Hud: Paul Newman, plus a supporting cast as good as he is.
Why not to watch: Mass cattle slaughter.

2 comments:

  1. I was pretty underwhelmed by The Big Sky. It has aged poorly and I suppose the attitude if the movie just rubs me the wrong way.

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    1. I'm with you on that. It's pretty standard in a lot of respects. Fans of Westerns will like it, but it's not the sort of film that makes converts to the genre.

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