The first half of this year’s season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience draws to a close with the great Paul Newman vehicle Hud, celebrating its 50th birthday this very same day. From its curt, slablike title on down, it is a pulverising movie, home to one of the all-time great movie antiheroes in the form of Hud Bannon. More to the point, for our present needs, it features some fucking phenomenal black and white anamorphic widescreen cinematography courtesy of one of the all-time greats, James Wong Howe – the second week in a row with Howe! – and while going around making claims like “the best work of James Wong Howe’s career” really just shows that the speaker has too much certainty in his opinion, I would certainly not fight the judgment that this is exactly that, though I would also offer up the counter-argument of Sweet Smell of Success.
Regardless, it is a terrifyingly well-shot movie, with terrifyingly great acting (Patricia Neal deservedly won an Oscar for her career-best performance; Newman lost for his career-best performance to Sidney Poitier, for a fine performance that was absolutely not his career-best), and tough-as-hell directing by Martin Ritt. I say all of this because my pick for Best Shot is a little bit spoilery, and I really want everybody reading this who hasn’t seen the movie to go do so, so I just wanted to briefly describe some of the reasons it is amazing as hell and you should watch it at the first possible moment.
That being said, on the to the shot. The spoilers are coming now, so go ahead and scoot if you care about that kind of thing.
It is the lowest, darkest (literally!) moment in the life of a man who has been awfully low and awfully dark all along: a very drunk and perpetually mean Hud has just burst in on Alma Brown (Neal), and is presently about to rape her.
Subtle it’s not; but effective, it definitely is. The dark room, with the single bright spot in the whole frame existing just to frame Alma and demonstrate to us where in the space she is, and also to shine that sliver-thin outline on Hud’s arm; the man’s listing, but physically powerful body language; the way he is situated between Alma and the only way out of the space. This is an impeccably menacing image, and even totally divorced from context, you can tell just glancing at it that something evil is about to happen in this room. It is suffocating and oppressive with it.
In a film that spends most of its energy contrasting Newman’s charisma and all-time champion movie star good looks with the utterly vile behavior of his character, I can’t think of another moment that underscores in such thick lines how totally without merit or redeeming characteristics Hud is. It gets there, of course, in part by obscuring Newman’s face, but in reducing Hud to nothing but a featureless black form, this image is in fact depicting the character at his purest and most elemental. It is a nasty summation of a nasty person, and as devastating as any other image in the whole feature.