Monday, January 14, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Hombre" (1967)

Paul Newman, of course, looks about as much like an American Indian as I do an Aboriginal chieftain. Even as half-breed Apache John Russell, it's an entirely unconvincing portrait -- the bad wig and bandana he wears briefly during the opening scene doing nothing to help.

But Russell is a compelling anti-hero in "Hombre," notable for two reasons. First, he's a powerful advocate for a revisionist look at how Indians are portrayed in Western films, delivering a stern uppercut to white characters who look disdainfully down on his people. To the snooty upper-crust woman who talk in horrified tone about seeing some Apaches eat dog meat, he tells her she's never known real hunger. "You'd eat dog, and fight for the bones."

And that line gives a clue to the other aspect of the character: He is one of the unkindest, most unlikable men  you're apt to meet in a mainstream film. He kills without enjoyment, but he does so with a total lack of hesitation or compassion. Russell is not above shooting a man in the back after he's come to parley if he thinks the other a threat.

Lots and lots of men of this ilk are portrayed in movies, particularly Westerns, but their grimness is always a front for a fairly typical heroic outlook ... or, at the very least, their severity is eventually triumphed by altruistic feelings. Think of the Man with No Name, whose trilogy was recently profiled in this space. Clint Eastwood wears the visage of a selfish killer, but almost from the get-go he's looking to help out the downtrodden.

Not John Russell. Newman's steely performance makes quite clear that he gives not a fig for the Caucasians (and one Mexican) with whom he shares a stagecoach. when they find out he's half-Indian, Russell is forced to ride up top with the driver. When the coach is stopped and robbed by bandits -- one of them hidden among the passengers -- Russell is ready to let them all die so long as he's not harmed.

In the end, of course, Russell does sacrifice himself for the greater good. But it's damn clear he's not happy about doing it. It's an act of heroism, but executed with a sneer and resignation rather than a kind heart.

Elmore Leonard must hold some kind of record for most novels turned into films, due in part to the fact that he leapt through genres gleefully. Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch adapted the book for the screenplay, turning in a spare, economical script with surprisingly little dialogue. Russell himself rarely speaks more than a sentence or two at a time.

Director Martin Ritt was a well-regarded journeyman who had previously worked with Newman on "Hud," "The Long, Hot Summer" and and several other pictures. Visually "Hombre" isn't terribly novel, though Ritt has a flair for extreme close-ups of faces that is in some ways reminiscent of Sergio Leone.

His real strength as a filmmaker, I think, was in eliciting sharp, strong performances from his cast. All the characters in "Hombre," from the lead to the smallest supporting role, have a resonance and authenticity that's gripping. Even a Mexican bandit (Frank Silvera) -- who's only credited as "Mexican bandit" -- gets a few choice lines and a dramatic death scene.

It's no surprise that Ritt, who scored only one Oscar nomination during his long career, saw his films garner an astonishing 11 Academy Award acting nominations, with two wins.

The plot is pretty bare, though it bears some similarities to an updated version of John Ford's classic "Stagecoach."

A party of disparate souls are packed together for a journey through dangerous lands, with one of them an outcast. Russell, who had been corralling horses in the mountains with other Apaches, learns the white father who adopted him has died and left him a boarding house. He takes one look at it and the harried, soulful woman running the place and decides to sell it for a herd of horses.

Jessie (a terrific Diane Cilento), acts as the moral conscience of the group, repeatedly trying to shame Russell into helping the others instead of just looking out for himself. Jessie has her own problems. In addition to just losing her livelihood, she proposes marriage to her boyfriend, the local sheriff Braden (Cameron Mitchell), and is told, "Not a chance." By her own reckoning she's been married, widowed, used and abused, but she has a strong sense of self and is in some ways hardier than Russell himself.

Fredric March plays Favor, an elderly professor and Indian agent who's been robbing Russell's tribe blind, carrying $12,000 in cash along with his much younger refined bride, Audra (Barbara Rush). Also along for the ride are Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris (Margaret Blye), a very young and recently married couple whose lives seem headed toward misery. Mendez (Martin Balsam) runs the coach line and is the closest thing in the world Russell has to a friend.

Last and least is Cicero Grimes, the head of the robber gang who poses as a passenger (by intimidating a soldier into giving up his ticket). Richard Boone has a splendid turn as the amoral Grimes, who's relentless and folksy at the same time. He's a loathsome man -- at one point he makes a semi-serious rape attempt on Doris -- but the movie only hits its highest gear when he's around.

3.5 stars out of four

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