MOVIE REVIEWS

Hombre

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8/10 NR 01 hr 51 min

March 21, 1967

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By John Chard May 5, 2017

We all die, it's just a question of when?

Hombre is directed by Martin Ritt and adapted to screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr from the Elmore Leonard novel. It stars Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Fredric March, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell and Barbara Rush. Music is by David Rose and cinematography by James Wong Howe. Plot finds Newman as John Russell, a white man who has been raised by the Apache. Travelling on a stagecoach after collecting his inheritance, Russell finds himself ostracised by his fellow white travellers. That is until something goes wrong and the group find they now need Russell's skills in order to survive.

If it's all right with you lady, I just didn't feel like bleeding for him.

One of the best things about 1960s Westerns was that writers and directors were now more comfortable in portraying the Native Americans more honestly. Yes there were some excellent ones in the 50s as well, but as the 60s wore on things started to get more gritty, characterisations had more daring depth to them and darker human thematics drove the narratives on. One of the finest of the decade is Hombre, a literate and often bleak story that thrives on truisms as it spins off about racism, tolerance, corruption, selfishness, hypocrisy and vengeance. Crucially here the makers aren't just about kicking the white man for injustices against the Native Americans, Russell, too, is not being portrayed as a stoic, moral, defender of the Apache. He too has major flaws, his bile consistently rising, he's one cold fish. The film does indeed have a liberal slant, but it's also kinked in places and ultimately plays out as a complex morality piece, while there's not much to like about any of the characters here, this is down and dirty stuff.

You wagged your tail in the mans face and got his attention.

The dialogue is sparse, but what there is is to be savoured. The script has intelligent barbs and rough edged ironies dotted within the exchanges, the group dynamic is frayed from the off and Ravetch and Frank's script keeps the mood sombre. And with Ritt unhurried and pacing it on the simmer, it's a film begging to be heard and understood. Filmed in Panavision on location in the Coronado National Forest area and the Helvetia Mines in Pima County (a real ghost town), film has a beauty that belies the tone of the story. Photographer James Wong Howe composes some striking images for the scenery and deals in memorable deep-focus shots for John Russell's telling moments. Howe, Ritt and Newman were a great team, four years earlier they had made Hud, with Ritt and Newman getting nominated for Academy Awards (Best Director/Actor respectively), and Howe winning for Best Cinematography (Black & White). Their understanding of each other is evident in Hombre, it's a lesson in how to get three of your key Western elements right (direction, photography and leading actor).

Cast are led superbly by Newman, piercing blue eyes with an icy cold demeanour, there's a boldness to the role that brings out a wonderfully simmering bitterness to Newman's acting. Perfect foil to Newman is Boone (The Tall T/Rio Conchos), who is nicely restrained in an uncouth bully boy role. Balsam (Psycho/Cape Fear) is one of the few character actors of the time who could get away with playing a Mexican without inducing cringes, and March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/A Star is Born) scores well in a two fold character portrayal of some shiftiness. Of the girls it's Cilento (Tom Jones) who leaves the lasting impression, she has Jessie as a lady not for turning, who has taken her knocks but ploughs on with strength of mind and a tongue as sharp as a tack. Rush (It Came from Outer Space/Bigger than Life) is the weak link, never once looking or sounding right in a Western setting, she compounds this by looking hopeless on a horse. A decent actress in the right genre, but an Oater? No way.

That gripe about Rush aside, this is a cracker of a Western. Not one for the all action guns a toting brigade for sure, but one for the adult who likes a bit of moody cranial splendour in their Western diets. 9/10

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