Movies about small towns in the 1960s were more innovative, thematically and stylistically, than those of previous decades. The new movies reflected the breakdown of the studio system as well as the fragmentation of American society.
The most characteristic, often the best, movies of the decade, dealt with the decline of the Old West and the breakdown of the old morality, as a result of the political assassinations, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other structural developments. The new freedom, on and offscreen, produced two kinds of narratives. One group stressed the irreconcilable generation gap between parents and children. The other focused on the decline of legitimate authority in society.
The first theme was most effectively used in Martin Ritt’s ”Hud,” a transitional film between the naive films of the early 1960s and the more cynical ones later in the decade. The Production Code was bent, allowing such words as “son of a bitch” and “bastard” to be heard for the first time on screen. The language used in this film was so unprecedented that it helped to bring down the Production Code.
The film stars Paul Newman in one of his best roles as an immoral and amoral Texas rancher, “a white Cadillac cowboy.” Anti-heroic and self-aggrandizing, Hud is a hedonistic womanizer, disregarding others’ rights.
However, Hud is pragmatic and thus understands that Texas’s economic future is in oil, not cattle. When his cattle contract “foot and mouth” disease, he wants to sell them, but his father is appalled by the very suggestion of “passing on bad stuff to my neighbors,” calling his son “an unprincipled man.” “You don’t give a damn,” charges the old man, “You don’t value nothing. You live just for yourself.”
The antagonism between father and son is mutual, not unlike the conflict in the two James Dean films that preceded it, ”Rebel Without a Cause” and ”East of Eden.”
“My mama loved me,” says Hud, “but she died.” In contrast to Hud, the father is an old Western-type rancher, who spurns the lure of oil, clinging to the traditional values of integrity and hard work. The old man believes in taking a moral stance, making decisions about “what’s right and what’s wrong.”
In one of many arguments, the father tells his cold-hearted, unethical son: “You got all the charm goin’ for you, and it makes the youngsters want to be like you.” Indeed, initially, Hud’s nephew, Lon (Brandon De Wilde), admires him. He is depicted as a boy, who ultimately stands between the two men, first idolizing Hud, then switching to the father’s side.
The turning point is when the drunken Hud assaults Alma (Patricia Neal), their housekeeper. A cynic, hard-bitten slattern, Alma has lived the hard way, but somehow retained her dignity and compassion. When she accuses Hud of being a “cold-blooded bastard,” he charges back, “You’re not young anymore, what are you saving it for?”
“I’ve done my time with one cold-blooded bastard,” says Alma, “I’m not looking for another.” Alma’s gambler of a husband left her stranded in New Mexico.
At the end, the old man dies, Alma leaves in disgust, and Hud is left alone, a lost man. Shunning what he perceives as “bourgeois morality,” that is, monogamous love and marriage, he embraces hedonistic values that defy the definition of responsible manhood.
Structurally, the symmetrical narrative begins with the arrival of Lon (the tale’s outsider) into town and it ends with his departure.