“You’re an unprincipled man,” the old rancher tells his reckless, short-tempered son. “You live just for yourself.” The younger one has just proposed quickly selling their large herd of diseased cattle before word gets out about the animals’ sickness, a despicable notion that takes his father aback. “It doesn’t take long to kill things,” the patriarch admonishes him. “Not like it does to grow.”
Not about to let his wild, narcissistic kid off the hook quite yet, the straight-talking old-timer further upbraids his selfish offspring for his penchant for lying in order to avoid consequences. “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire,” says the wizened man, who can now see nothing good lying beyond the horizon, beginning with his impatient progeny.
The scene is from Hud, the 1963 modern Western in which Paul Newman excelled as a short-tempered cad with little interest in anything other than himself, women and liquor. Subtracting the latter element, it was very difficult to watch the film the other night and not dwell to distraction on the title character’s uncanny resemblance to the man currently ensconced in the White House. For all his odiousness, Hud caused trouble only for those in his immediate vicinity, whereas the equally rash figure who replaced the Oval Office portrait of Abraham Lincoln with one of Andrew Jackson stirs consternation around the world on a daily basis.
In short, Martin Ritt’s film, which is set in the Texas panhandle and is based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was 25, feels remarkably, and uncomfortably, pertinent, probably moreso than it would have a few years ago. Perhaps then we felt we had outgrown the need to pay much attention to the kind of brash, self-centered, grown-up baby men whose retrograde attitudes might have been seen as something largely confined to the rear-view mirror. But at the moment we can’t escape the syndrome of a man who accepts no responsibility, who’s in it only for himself.
Hud did very well at the box-office and won three Oscars, for Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas for best actress and supporting actor, respectively, and for James Wong Howe’s elegantly gritty black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Some films made 50-plus years ago look stiff and artificial, like relics of another time, while others look entirely modern, with no — or few — concessions needing to be made due to changing styles and attitudes; Hud, with its amoral central character and blunt take on human nature, feels emotionally real and still packs a punch.
During this time of self-imposed house arrest, I usually see one film per day, mixing old, obscure and merely errant titles from film history I’ve never seen with revisits to see how certain titles, like Hud, hold up, or to introduce my son Nick to films new to him.
Because it features our friend Norman Lloyd as an imposing headmaster, the other night we watched Dead Poets Society, which — shockingly — is 31 years old (meaning Norman was a mere 75 at the time) and co-stars the very young Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard as earnest East Coast private school boys embarking upon their rites of passage into privileged manhood. Our first reaction was that this is a film that would never be made today because it focuses exclusively on upper-class white guys embracing — however uncertainly — their birthrights.
But there are at least two bigger problems with the script by Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for it. One, it meanders from about the midpoint on, only to make a sudden melodramatic turn near the end. Two, the teacher, played with earnest brio by Robin Williams, is merely a spigot for Horace’s philosophical edict carpe diem, or “seize the day,” the imperative he wishes to instill in his impressionable students. There’s no attempt at all to expand this inexhaustibly inspirational man into one resembling a three-dimensional human being; he’s just a totem devised for one thing and one thing only — to inspire the boys to think for themselves.
No doubt the best back-to-back films I pulled out for Nick to experience for the first time were Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical first feature The 400 Blows, which feels timeless in its account of blighted childhood and holds up wonderfully, and The King of Comedy, which my son absolutely adored and which I’ve maintained from day one is one of Martin Scorsese’s very best films.
The latter has always been enhanced by my memory of the post-screening party, which was the best single event of its kind I’ve ever attended. After the premiere on February 1, 1983, guests headed from the 20th Century Fox lot to the Improv on Melrose, an intimate venue where the audience was treated to the greatest lineup of comedians I’ve ever seen live on the same bill on a single evening. I can’t remember them all, but I know we saw George Burns (only 87 at the time, with 13 years to go), Alan King, Sandra Bernhard (who co-starred in the film) and Buddy Hackett. At that point I’d only ever seen Hackett on TV, where he was always hilarious. But live, onstage, he killed, with the dirtiest routine I’d ever heard in my life.
Two other titles worthy of buff interest are a couple of international espionage thrillers that walk the line between being films noir and reconstructions of daring undercover exploits during and after World War II. Henry Hathaway was far more often a relaxed director of Westerns than a suspense specialist, but he was on good form in 13 Rue Madeleine, from 1946, in which James Cagney spearheaded a top-secret espionage unit in France during World War II.
More convoluted but also more exciting is the same director’s 1952 Diplomatic Courier, in which military spy Tyrone Power careens among many trains to Salzburg and ultimately to the thick chaos of Trieste, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films that’s extremely photogenic in black and white. It’s also loaded with unfamiliar backgrounds that accentuate its status as a mysterious center of intrigue on the border between East and West in the tense wake of World War II. (It’s also where James Joyce wrote most of Ulysses.)
If you look closely, it’s clear that the main actors didn’t actually go to Europe for the shoot, suggesting that the location footage was all done by a second unit. But my French director friend and film buff supreme Bertrand Tavernier told me the other day that a Hollywood crew did go to Trieste and shot a good deal of material there.
“I think Hathaway filmed in Trieste but without any actors, only doubles,” Bertrand said. “He told me he was very proud of the film, a real challenge. ‘Tyrone Power could not leave Hollywood. I had to hide that I used a double, making them run much faster than Tyrone, which gave a tremendous energy to those shots.’ ”
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