Horseman, Pass By and Hud: From Novel to Film

Paul Newman in Hud

On May 21, 1962, a crew from Paramount Studios began 30 days of location filming in the small Texas Panhandle town of Claude, a ranching and farming community southeast of Amarillo, at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 287, Texas State Highway 207 and State Farm Road 1151.


Above and below: Claude, Texas, in 2016

The working title of the script and on the production call sheets was Hud Bannon. By the date of the film’s release in late May 1963, it was simply Hud, and though the title highlights Paul Newman’s pivotal role as the Bannon family’s seductive, blue-eyed bad boy, the film is a complex, multi-generational portrait of a family and a way of life at the cusp of unwelcome changes. They are changes that drive deep wedges into the already fractured relationship of Hud and his father, Homer (portrayed by Melvyn Douglas), the enfeebled family patriarch who, in the waning days of his life, retains a soul tough as rawhide.

Brandon De Wilde, already a veteran of movies and the stage at age 22, played Lon, the son of Hud’s deceased brother. De Wilde was nominated for an Academy Award a decade earlier for his portrayal of Joey Starrett in George Stevens’ Shane. He died in an auto accident in Denver a few months after he turned 30. The principal cast for Hud was rounded out by Patricia Neal as the family’s maid and cook, Alma. Both Neal and Douglas received Academy Awards for their performances, as did cinematographer James Wong Howe. Newman and the director, Martin Ritt, received Oscar nominations, as did husband-wife screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., who scripted eight movies for Ritt.

Alma (Patricia Neal) and Hud

In the script, the town’s name is Thalia; in rewrites it became Vernal. The town’s water tower was repainted to reflect the change and other signage and storefronts were modified before shooting began. In the opening of the screenplay the writers described the town:

The gold rays of the sun flushed on the chrome of an old truck as it slows down to enter town. Thalia, Texas, is one of those unseen little places along the highway where some roads end and others begin. It is a sun-parched oasis, a town of under-painted houses and grassless yards full of pea pods, goatheads and weeds.

Thalia is also a town that served as a central trucking junction to transport local cattle to distant slaughterhouses. Raising cattle is the chosen life of Homer Bannon, whose two old longhorns serve as metaphors for the West that is dying, even as oil wells erupt from the flat Texas land.

The script was adapted from Horseman, Pass By, the first novel by young writer Larry McMurtry. The title, like those of many novels that reference the Bible or poetry, is the last line from “Under Ben Bulben” by W.B. Yeats:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.

Yeats intended this to be his own epitaph. Its “cold” imperative comes to ground in the film.

Hud was not a large-budget movie. The schedule was 46 days, with 30 on locations around Claude and Goodnight, Texas and the remainder at Paramount Studios, where interiors of the house and Alma’s casita were built on Stage 9. The night-exterior scenes on the front porch of the Bannon home were also filmed on stage.

Homer (Melvyn Douglas), Lon (Brandon de Wilde) and Hud on the front porch

Rearscreen-process car driving shots were mostly done on Stage 2, though scenes of the climactic car accident involving Hud’s Cadillac and Lon in Homer’s pickup truck were done night-for-night on a remote road outside Claude.

Reading McMurtry’s novel illuminates some of the speed bumps involved in developing the source material into a screenplay, and then into a finished film. In the novel, Hud is not actually Homer’s son, but one of the cowboys on the Bannon ranch, a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until a quarter way through the book. Several other ranch hands, especially Jesse, figure more significantly in the early chapters. Notably, in the novel Hud is absent from the early, pivotal scene in which a dead heifer is found on the open range, buzzards squatting patiently on nearby tree branches. In the film, Hud not only is in this early scene, but dominates it with his hostility toward resolving how the young cow died, resisting having a veterinarian investigate. Hud tries to drive off the buzzards with an angry fusillade from his rifle, a futile gesture but a warning early in the film that he can be a dangerous man. Granddad scolds Hud, insisting the buzzards are a necessary part of the land’s ecosystem. Hud couldn’t care less.

The discovery of the dead heifer

The movie’s opening title sequence, showing Lon hitching a ride into town in first light to retrieve his uncle Hud from a night’s carousing, doesn’t exist in the novel. Howe’s wide screen title compositions in the opening minutes are set over a gentle guitar theme. This leads into a brilliantly executed offscreen introduction to the charismatic antihero, as Lon tries to follow the track of Hud’s nocturnal rampage. We gain insight into Hud’s alpha-male persona well before we see him stumbling out of Truman Peter’s house, pulling on his boots, saying goodbye to Peter’s wife while young Lon waits beside Hud’s showy Cadillac convertible.

One of the most stunning differences between novel and movie centers on the character of Alma. In the novel, she is Halmea, a mouthy, no-nonsense, slightly blowsy black woman. Lon seems more attracted to her casual physical charms than does Hud, who while drunk breaks  into Halmea’s room, suggesting a latent racial violence as much as sexual. In short, Hud as drawn in the novel, is pretty thoroughly despicable. One of the questions for me as I read McMurtry’s novel was how this minor character evolved into the movie’s marketing mantra: “Paul Newman is Hud!”

At this point in his career, Newman was a major movie star, and although he had played several “outsider” roles, it seems unlikely he would have responded to the character of Hud as set in the novel. My own attempt to trace Hud’s evolution through several drafts of the script in the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library was not terribly successful; they were all rewrites completed no earlier than a few months prior to filming.

In an interview with William Baer in the Spring 2003 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, Frank and Ravetch explain how the filmmakers’ dramatization of Hud ran counter to the audience’s:

FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the ‘charming’ villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem — even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.
BAER: It actually backfired.
RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man —Hud — who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbors poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, ‘Which character did you most admire?’ and many of them answered, ‘Hud.’ We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic. There’s something in the American psyche that’s sadly attracted to the dangerous, the flamboyant.

What is the narrative glue that sticks to the movie Hud, different as it is from the almost Old Testament morality of the novel? Contrasting with Newman’s cynical yet charismatic character are the deeply affecting bedrock moral links between young Lon and his granddad, Homer. Not only does the movie foreground Hud, he dominates it.

However, the narrative “voice” or point of view itself shifts from novel to film. The novel is written in the first person voice of Lon, revealing its scenes with an immediacy almost as if from a diary; in fact, the entire book sparkles with the kind of urgency of an American Bildungsroman. A narrator with a whip-smart understanding of human beings as clear as Holden Caulfield’s, Lon doesn’t engage in sarcasm or harsh judgment; he is a quiet observer and is the antithesis of Hud’s amoral bellowings. In the film, Lon, while embracing his granddad’s moral code, is also vulnerable to Hud’s rolling swagger.

Lon and Hud

It is useful to view the film as a tug of war for Lon’s soul, a battle between the powerfully masculine Hud and feeble but iron-willed Homer. Lon, whose dead father is but a shadowy presence in the movie, is caught in between the two forces. The impressionable part of his still-forming psyche is seduced by Hud’s charisma and unquestioned sense of his self worth. The other part of Lon is rooted in love for both granddad and the land. Hud mocks Homer as being too old to “cut the mustard,” and Hud’s treatment of nearly everyone reveals in him a narcissistic self-absorption that violates all the tenets of manhood that Homer tries to instill in Lon. It comes to its inevitable showdown on the stairway of their home.

In the Michigan Quarterly interview with Baer, Frank also discusses how the maid Halmea evolved into Alma:

We would have loved to keep her black for the movie. She has moral strength, she’s benevolent, she’s tough-minded, and she’s secure in herself. So we would have loved to say to the world, ‘Look, here’s a hell of a woman, and she’s black,’ but in those days you simply couldn’t do it, and not because the talent wasn’t there — there were at least a half-dozen powerhouse black actresses who could have played that role. But the times weren’t ready for it yet, and it was, of course, further complicated by the attempted rape.

James Wong Howe’s stark, even elemental black-and-white cinematography in Hud is evidence that old studio glamour lighting was on the wane. In a July 1963 interview in American Cinematographer, Howe complains that on the day of shooting, the cattle being driven into the pits was a photographic challenge:

A lot of fluffy clouds decorated the sky. Every time I looked up and saw those clouds, I hated them. What I really wanted was a bleak early morning sky …. we had to go ahead and shoot anyway …. Every time I look at that sequence now … it frustrates me because it’s too beautiful to be in keeping with the scene.

Howe used the latest Panavision anamorphic lenses for Hud. Panavision was, at that time, still only an anamorphic-lens (2.39:1) rental house. Its breakthrough, beautifully designed PSR reflex camera was still a few years away. Elsewhere, Howe discusses insisting on hard ceilings for the studio sets of the Bannon home, and using realistic lighting from the floor rather than from the overhead green beds. He used fluorescents for some of Claude’s practical locations. Even with this departure from traditional studio techniques of the time and before the influence of the European New Wave, fellow cinematographers nominated him for the B&W Oscar, which he won.

To me, the movie’s most interesting departure from the novel is easily the final sequence. Both novel and script contain a tedious, foursquare Protestant church eulogy given by the minister. The scene was scripted and shot, but dropped from the final cut. There remains a scene between Hud and Lon outside the church right after funeral services. It then cuts to Hud driving his battered Cadillac up to the now empty cattle pens back at the ranch as Lon, carrying a suitcase, leaves home. Hud drives alongside the boy as they discuss Lon’s plans for the future. Lon walks away, headed out to the highway to begin a new life, one away from the uncle for whom he has lost any love. Hud’s last line, true to form, reflects his gritty dystopian view of life: “You know something, Fan-tan, this world is so full of crap a man’s going to get into it sooner or later, whether he’s careful or not.” (One of the great ironies of the movie is that in the novel, this line is actually spoken not by Hud, but by Homer, when the old man promises government vet Jimmy Burris that he’ll shoot his last two longhorns himself, after his entire herd has been slaughtered.)

Lon walks away from Hud, refusing to look back. Hud gets out of his Cadillac and heads to the house. He walks into the kitchen, stops at the refrigerator, retrieves and opens a can of beer with a “church key,” and, for a split second, seems vaguely introspective in his newfound aloneness.

Hud then ambles toward the camera, which has stayed on the porch; he looks out in the direction of the departed Lon.

What Hud does next is one of the most alienating images in American cinema in its brazen abruptness. The studio resisted this final image, but Ritt, the Ravetches and Newman all argued for it and they prevailed. “The End” title superimposed on the door leaves you with no emotional release.

Today, five and a half decades after its making, Hud seems much more than a jagged, nostalgic meditation on the passing of a mythic way of life, and more than a cinematic Death of a Salesman-style family tragedy. It presents a looking glass into the America we are seeing in a post-Obama era. Naked and narcissistic self-interest have always been a dark undercurrent to the limpid surface stream of American optimism and justice, but it is not a reach to see the character of Hud as an avatar of the troubling cynicism of that other side of American Populism — the side that espouses a fake concern for one’s fellow man while lining one’s own pockets. Hud, a lothario at the wheel of his crashed convertible, raising a shroud of dust clouds in its trail, is nothing more than a flimflam 19th century snake-oil salesman and carnival barker. His type erupts over and over onto America’s psyche like a painful pustule.

(Author’s Note: On April 22 at 10:30 a.m., I will introduce a 35mm presentation of Hud to kick off the second season of Films on Film, a screening series for Academy members and film students at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. There will be be a standby line; if seating is available, and it usually is, you’ll be admitted.)

Paul Newman aims the camera at Patricia Neal during a break between shots. Director of photography James Wong Howe stands directly behind him, and director Martin Ritt is next to Howe.

The town’s historic 19th century one-room schoolhouse—- in October, 2016

NEXT: Josef Schulz: Übergang

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