The Hollywood and television blacklist in the HUAC/McCarthy era of the 1940s and 1950s had many victims. Perhaps the most talented of those directors affected was Joseph Losey, whose exile to England resulted in a blossoming that might not have occurred if he had been able to continue his career in America. Losey was atypical in other ways. Many of the men who had been implicated as leftists were New York Jews. We tend to forget that Communism was widespread and, more or less, acceptable in a country still reeling from the Depression. For a time, Stalin portrayed himself as anti-Nazi, and great artists like the Black superstar Paul Robeson and, to a lesser degree, the Jewish Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield were identified with left-wing causes. Among the major directors was Abraham Polonsky (1910–1999), who was banned from directing from 1947’s Force of Evil (starring Garfield) until 1968’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here; and Robert Rossen (1908–1966), who was banned for four years shortly after his Oscar-winning All the King’s Men, but allowed to resume his career after “naming names.”
Martin Ritt (1902–1990) had been an associate of Elia Kazan‘s at the New York Group Theater, and wound up as a television director, arriving in Hollywood at the age of 55, after having been excluded from TV for six years. His first film was Edge of the City, a somewhat politically charged successor to Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Ritt had already made three films with Paul Newman, one of the most marketable stars of the period, before Hud—and they would be united twice more.In a recent New Yorker article, John le Carré, whose The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Ritt brought to the screen, described the director as “an accomplished director of great heart and daunting life experience.” Ritt always maintained his quasi-Marxist pursuit of justice and fairness, and in later works—The Front, Norma Rae, Sounder, and The Great White Hope, among others—this became explicit. Hud, a film devoid of much overt political content, is more of a character study, far from the urban environments where Ritt seemed most comfortable. With beautiful widescreen photography in Texas’s wide-open spaces—by the great James Wong Howe, who won his second Oscar for the film—Hud anticipates by a decade Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of another great depiction of the decline of a way of life in a changing America: Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
In a sense, Hud is an actor’s film, one that displayed the director’s genuine gift for extracting superb performances. One presumes that the character closest to Ritt’s heart was that played by the now-elderly erstwhile leading man of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas. Douglas won the first of his two Oscars for this performance. (He, too, had been a longtime advocate of liberal causes, and was married to actress-turned-Congresswoman Helen Gehagan, one of the favorite targets of Richard Nixon in his rise to power.) Douglas’s Homer Bannon’s life is ultimately as ruined as his visage, but he maintains a stoic dignity, determined to do right by his fellow man. Paul Newman, his renegade son, is his antithesis, with Ritt exploiting the actor’s gift for cynical twinkle. Patricia Neal also won an Oscar, exuding a restrained eroticism that made her one of the best actresses of the period, however underappreciated she may have been for too much of her career. If Elia Kazan was the great director of actors, Hud marks Martin Ritt as one of his most gifted disciples.
Just a brief plug for our exhibition The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part I, beginning January 7, which is based on Daisuke Miyao’s excellent book on Japanese cinema. The exhibition includes several little-known films from Japan made prior to the golden age of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa—including several prints imported from the National Film Center in Tokyo that are unlikely to be shown again in the foreseeable future. Professor Miyao will be present to introduce several of the films, and he will sign copies of his book on January 11.