starring Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento
screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
directed by Martin Ritt
by Walter Chaw Paul Newman's Hombre is his fourth and final "H" film of that decade--a quartet that includes The Hustler, Harper, and another of his six collaborations with Martin Ritt, the fantastic Hud. Each (and feel free to lump Cool Hand Luke and Paris Blues in with this esteemed crowd) features Newman as an outsider influence, a catalyst for change and a hero testing the boundaries of acceptable social mores (as was much of the cinema of the '60s), made all the more shocking for his matinee idol good looks and all-American cool. Newman, arguably the biggest and best star of the Sixties, was the quintessential anti-hero for a dissenting cinematic age, and he brought that brooding outcast sensibility to what was perhaps the quintessential outsider role: a half-breed in a western in Ritt's 1967 film Hombre.
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (adapted by the screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, who collaborated eight times with director Ritt) and resplendent with an exceptional number of sharp exchanges (most of them reserved for Richard Boone's oily villain and Diane Cilento's no-nonsense Audra), Hombre is the nickname given John Russell, a half-Apache member of the tribal police who inherits a house from his biological father. Promptly trading it in for a herd of horses, Russell, taking a stage back to his relocated homeland, encounters virulent racism, bandits, and bad intentions with an inscrutable reserve laced more with melancholy than the general sociopathology of Clint Eastwood's contemporary Man With No Name. It is Newman's gift that he is able to suggest injury while maintaining an icy exterior; note an exchange Russell has with coachman Henry (Martin Balsam, typically good even playing a Mexican) as Henry tells Russell that his fellow travelers have voted him out of the coach.
This is not to say that Russell is a "good guy." Rather, "hombre" is deeply ambivalent and possibly vengeful, wearing the racial injustice of his mother's people on his sleeve. Newman's performance is deceptively stoic, his impassivity striking the correct tenor for the time, for his body of work to that point, and for the genre-perverting precedent set by Leone while predicting to a degree the darkness of Sam Peckinpah (as reflected in this exchange between Audra and a bandit she recognizes: "What are you doing here?" she asks. "Going bad, honey," he replies). And it does seem that in Hombre, the entire western genre is "going bad": the costumes aren't quite as clean, the colour of the hats not so sharply delineated, the lone hero archetype is marred (though not irrevocably) by the assassination of JFK (the "irrevocably" part will come with the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the manifest morality of incursions against indigenous peoples shaded with uncertainty now two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
For as much as Hombre is a film of its time, it endures as an example of how deeper examinations of the rifts that divide individuals and nations are forever contemporary. It's a deceptively complex morality tale wrapped in a western milieu--a tough-talking ransom intrigue of the kind favoured by Leonard given resonance through a very fine (and somewhat risky) performance by Newman and a screenplay full of caustic ironies and harsher truths. The ingenious cinematographer James Wong Howe composes stunning deep-focus shots (the best of which incorporates Russell in extreme foreground with rifle while a hostage kneels down a mining hill, baking in the midday sun, though a shot down a rifle barrel still impresses), and Ritt demonstrates his touch with western-borrowed elements of the grotesque (he helmed two Faulkner adaptations) and of the hero isolated from the society he (and she: Ritt's Norma Rae) saves. Hombre is imperfect but fantastic, and while a modern sensibility more readily embraces A Fistful of Dollars or The Wild Bunch, Hombre is a fascinating look at a transitional point between two decades of cinema and invaluable for the wealth of insight (and entertainment) it offers.
Fox offers Hombre in a very handsome anamorphic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that shows its age in an imperfect print source now and again (colour fading and lines, generally) but overall, save some edge enhancement, demonstrates a very pleasing clarity and brightness. Greens are a little over-compensated and flesh tones a shade bright, but the overall contrast is good--black and shadow levels are especially fine. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track is full and satisfying. No hissing or popping to betray the age of the piece in any way, though there's little left-right separation. Special features on the disc are disappointingly sparse: an eight-image behind-the-scenes still gallery showing a few candids of cast and crew on location, and a rough (though interesting) trailer (1.85:1) for Hombre itself. Trailers for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1.85:1), The Hustler (2.35:1), and The Verdict (1.85:1) round out the disc. Originally published: June 4, 2002.