Thursday 22 March 2012


(Martin Ritt, 1967)

Elmore Leonard's Western work all seems ideal for adaptation to cinema. His stories are generally based on strong, simple ideas, his heroes attractive, capable, manly, his heroines strong, independent women, his villains loathsome but interestingly complicated.
Hombre contains as striking and effective a plot mechanism as the one which drives the twice-filmed 3:10 To Yuma; a White man abducted as a boy and mainly raised among Apache finds himself shunned by his fellow travellers on a long stagecoach journey through the wilderness. But when outlaws show up, the others turn to him, the only capable warrior, for help, and he must decide whether to lead them through the desert to survival or leave them to die.
Directed by Robert Aldrich, say, Hombre might stand as one of the great Westerns. The story is exciting and gripping, the characters strong and recognisable. But Ritt is not a director all that comfortable with genre material. His background in theatre and television means that he is great with actors - and the performances here are all memorable for their strength - but also means that this film plods along almost politely, where Leonard's plots usually crackle with forward momentum and a delight in the unavoidable violence which must, inevitably, come.
Still, Hombre is a fine western, full of good things. Paul Newman, who had established a close working relationship with Ritt over five previous films, makes his hero an inscrutable survivor, his eyes lit with a private amusement at the pettiness of lying White men. When pushed, like all Leonard's heroes, he is a deadly killer, he just needs persuading to take that step, his stoicism hiding seething anger at the injustices heaped upon the Apache.
He is well matched with Richard Boone's charismatic, intimidating villain, also somewhat amused by his lot, and Diane Cilento's no-nonsense widow, all cynicism, quiet smoulder and guarded concern for others, afraid of nobody and always ready with a sharp-tongued opinion.
For the most part, Hombre actually plays like a television or stage play, much of it devoted to characters talking in the confines of a Stagecoach or an abandoned cabin, so the quality of the cast is vital to it's success.
But Ritt helps himself with his handsomely classical direction - he handles the final confrontation and shootout with real, perhaps surprising aplomb - and the cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe is terrific, with a real feel for the rugged landscape and it's dangerous possibilities.
This is a Western made after the first arrival and success of the Italian Spaghetti Films, and that has affected the look and feel on display here. Gone is the clean, cheery brightness of many Westerns of the 1950s and early 60s. Instead we get a burnished palette of browns and drained yellows. The nocturnal scenes are dark, no jarring, surreal "day for night" shooting here, and the characters sweat and fray and get dirty and dusty and tired during their ordeal.
And there is a single, ugly splash of blood when one particularly unpleasant villain is shot which seems very much a moment from the 1960s; Ritt keen to tell us that in his west, violence was an scary, serious thing. His film, for all it's strengths, could perhaps have used just a touch less seriousness and a little more of Elmore Leonard's humour and verve.

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