Hombre (Blu-ray Review)1 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento.
Depending on how you feel about Harper, Paul Newman had a distressing streak of indifferent movies in the mid-1960s (including even Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain) — but Hombre was something of a return to form even though this Martin Ritt Western has one of the most coldly taciturn performances of his career. The title hard-ass isn’t just tightlipped but tightlipped and alienated, though you can’t say he’s shoulder-chipped without a cause. What results is a little like a Stagecoach without as much love for its fellow man (an, to be sure, ladies) — though this 20th Century-Fox release has more love for its audience than the studio’s Stagecoach remake did a couple years earlier. (Alex Cord — now, that’s taciturn. So much so I believe Stanley Kauffman’s review referred to him as a human vacuum in his review.)
Ritt worked with married screenwriters Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr. eight times, and the two were responsible for a goodly chunk of his best films, including two predecessors with Newman: The Long, Hot Summer and Hud. Working from an Elmore Leonard source, their narrative here tells of an Apache-raised white man (Newman) who’s been shunted back and forth between cultures to such an extreme that he’s not quite sure who or where he is. A benefactor bequeaths him a house in a white man’s burg, and one is as dilapidated the other — but still, he now owns a house that also includes a been-around but attractive proprietress (Diane Cilento) who could conceivably fit into the deal if he’d show a few human qualities once in a while. But no.
This is the set-up, and the underused Cilento (definitely not here, but overall in her big-screen career) reminds me a lot of Alma — the housekeeper got an Oscar for playing in Hud. She’s world-weary but hasn’t let it kill her decency in a movie whose standout characters include quite a few who aren’t very decent. The latter group include a crooked Indian agent (Fredric March, as always, a total pleasure to watch) and an ill-matched younger wife (Barbara Rush) so anxious to bolt town that March shells out lots of ill-gained loot to hire a mud wagon that’ll get them on the road. And when it comes time to blow the joint, there’s no time like now, so the rest of the cast signs on for the trip as well. Hombre/Newman, predictably, is really thrilled to be sharing travel accommodations with a racist fraud who’s stolen money from tribes — sentiments returned by both March and especially Rush, who gets all haughtily bigoted when she learns of Newman’s family history (he’s made a trip to the era’s equivalent of a Hair Cuttery, so his appearance is no longer an automatic giveaway).
Forcing his way on is a stranger played by Richard Boone, and I remember thinking in ’67 that this was the most malevolent characterization I’d ever seen (a brutal sociopath akin to the one Boone later played opposite John Wayne in Big Jake). He’s obviously up to some kind of initially undefined no-good, and the rest of the narrative is all cats-and-mice with Hombre possibly (and hopefully) the toughest kitty of them all. Even though the great James Wong Howe photographed Hombre after having won one of the most deserved Oscars ever for Hud, this is not a Western where you get much sense of land or surroundings (as in the work of Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Delmer Daves and, of course, John Ford). BUT: Ritt, a former actor, more often than not was first-rate with talents of that trade; if you’re a fan of “character-driven,” the movie engrosses for all of its 107 minutes, even if it doesn’t linger in the marrow the way the very best Westerns do (Brando’s equally nasty One-Eyed Jacks is an even meaner Western that does).
Hombre put Newman on a good track for 1967, and Cool Hand Luke would follow later in the year — though the actor had a deal with Universal back before it became a truly major studio early in the 1970s. This is why the incredibly retro The Secret War of Harry Frigg and Winning were the two Newmans that immediately followed, which exasperated a lot of fans at the time, including Pauline Kael. Working with Universal was mostly a fool’s errand in the later 1960s, which explains to some extent the permanent big-screen stall-outs of Rock Hudson, George Peppard and James Garner. So maybe it was fitting that one of the pictures that changed Universal’s fortunes for better and even for good was The Sting in 1973. On balance, Newman made more duds than a lot of people think, but he never went too long without rebounding with some film that ultimately helped defined his career. Hombre isn’t quite one of those, but it’s pretty high on the second tier.