In the 1960s, Paul Newman was on a roll with movies beginning with the letter “H.” First came Hud in 1963, then Harper in 1966. One year later, Newman was back with Hombre, a tough, somber western which ranks with the best that decade has to offer.
Newman tamps down his usual cocky charm to play the laconic “hombre” of the title, a white man raised among the Apache. As a boy he was “rescued” and taken in by a kind man named Russell, who named him John Russell and taught him the white man’s ways. But John Russell preferred the Apache way of life and returned to live with them, working first for the reservation police, then as a free agent, which is where we first meet him, watching stoically as he and some fellow Apaches try to trap some wild mustangs to sell to raise money for the poverty-stricken tribe.
Russell is told by old friend and stagecoach owner Mendez (Martin Balsam) that the elder Russell has died, and left him a boarding house in his will. Attractive, salty landlady Jessie (Diane Cilento) has hopes that new owner Russell will keep the business going, but after a quick inspection, Russell informs her that he’s had an offer on the place and he’s going to sell. That leaves Jessie and the other tenants of the boarding house without a place to stay. When Indian agent Favor (Frederic March) and his high-falutin’ wife, Audra (Barbara Rush), pay a premium to get a quick stage out of town, many of the now-homeless tenants pack up and join in, including unhappy newlyweds Billy Lee (Peter Lazar) and Doris (Margaret Blye), Mendez, and Jessie herself, after her long-time lover, Braden (Cameron Mitchell), the local sheriff, flatly refuses to make an honest woman of her. The last two passengers are Russell and big, swaggering Cyrano Grimes (Richard Boone).
Grimes is bad news all around, and the long, dusty stagecoach journey ends abruptly in a hold up. Seems Favor has absconded with government funds intended for the Apaches, and Grimes and his men got wind of it. Tired of his nowhere life as a sheriff, Braden has thrown his lot in with Grimes, as well as a couple of other scumbags, Dean (David Canary) and Early (Skip Ward). Grimes takes Mrs. Favor as a hostage, but before his cronies can ride off with the loot, Russell hops atop the stagecoach, grabs his hidden rifle and opens fire, swiftly killing Braden (so much for that career as an outlaw, buddy!) and Dean. There’s a nice shot here of all the passengers lying flat on the dirt after the brief firefight, a simple yet realistic touch, one of many that pepper the film.
Russell grabs the money and heads for the hills, while the rest of the passengers hastily scramble after him. “Why do we keep following you?” Jessie asks Russell at one point. “Because I can cut it, lady,” he replies. The remainder of the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Russell and the other passengers and the pursuing Grimes, now assisted by a friendly, but very dangerous, Mexican bandido (Frank Silvera). It all eventually comes down to a dramatic finale, with Russell having to make a choice: to remain on the sidelines and let innocent people die, or to put his life on the line for someone else.
Newman anchors the film with a quiet authority. Tanned and lean, his aquiline features well-suited to the part, Newman effectively captures the careful, watchful, preternaturally calm Apache spirit residing in the white man’s body. His Russell is a fascinating central figure, straddling two cultures, a lifetime of hard-won skills and truths reflected in his manner and actions, practical and unsentimental at all times. He never wastes time on social niceties, though is seldom rude. He avoids confrontation and taking unnecessary risks, but will move with swift, decisive, and deadly force when required. The stranded passengers follow his lead not because of what he says, but of what he does. Because, as he tells Jessie, he can cut it.
Hombre is a grim movie in many respects, but there’s quite a lot of wry wit in the dialogue and genuine, amusing surprise in some of Russell’s actions. For example, after the stagecoach robbery goes wrong for the baddies, and Russell takes off for the hills with the money and the passengers in tow, he suggests the best course of action is to end the conflict now, by a surprise ambush. He sets Mendez behind some rocks with the shotgun and he further uphill with his rifle, and they lie in wait in the hot sun. Mendez has no stomach for an ambush and shoots too early, alerting Grimes and his men. Russell does what damage he can, though, including shooting and wounding Grimes’ tough Mexican compadre. This leads to a fun exchange between the two men, starting off with the unnamed bandito giving a little speech to show his respect: “Hey, hombre! A compliment on your shooting! You put a hole in me! Whew. I never had a bellyache like this since I'm a little boy. Hey amigo! Friend! I am going to give you back this bullet."
Or take the scene near the end, when Russell and the others are holed up in an old mining shack. Grimes comes up for a parley and to utter some threats. In a typical western, the scene would finish with some brave rejoinder from the hero, and then the heavy would retreat down the hill, unmolested, their final showdown postponed till later.
Not in Hombre.
In other words, Russell doesn’t play by normal “white men” rules. This is no game to him, only life-and-death struggle and cold, utter practicality.
Diane Cilento gives a terrific performance in one of the better-written roles for an actress I’ve seen in a western. A native Australian, married to Sean Connery at the time, Cilento is utterly convincing as a sexy, no-nonsense sort of frontier woman, who’s been there and bears the scars of experience, but still retains her femininity, humor and humanity. She sparks immediately with Newman’s Russell, and the two circle each other throughout the film. Despite her initial dislike, she grows to grudgingly respect and even become attracted to the taciturn Russell.
Despite her excellent work here and in other films, such as Tom Jones and The Wicker Man, Cilento’s career never quite took off like it should have, a shame really. With her red hair, big, expressive eyes, and tough attitude, she’s a striking presence in Hombre and it’s on her face that the film’s emotional last beat focuses on.
Big Richard Boone is letter perfect as the main villain, with his grizzled exterior and baleful glare masking a keen intellect and a tired, tattered courtliness of manner. He could do this kind of badman role in his sleep, but instead invests Grimes with a kind of resigned implacability. This is a man who is used to getting his own way, by threat of violence or the actual use of it. Frank Silvera is given less to do, as the "vaquero who's more than a fair hand" with a gun, but does it with style and gusto. David Canary exits early but is properly unsavory as the henchman who has an earlier run-in with Russell. Cameron Mitchell's turn is even slighter, but he does get one well-written speech early on, lamenting his go-nowhere prospects as a two-bit sheriff in a one-horse town. (Reportedly his role was originally much bigger but he had a falling out with Newman and the producers, though I can’t find any substantiation for this, other than to observe that it does seem a case of casting way above the pay grade for the role as is in the finished film).
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong. Frederic March brings a nice loquaciousness and tarnished dignity to the duplicitous Mr. Favor, and Barbara Rush, at 40 here no longer an ingénue but still every inch the lady, delivers a nice line in glacial hauteur. Martin Balsam is likely no one’s first choice to play a Mexican (although it’s implied that he, too, might be a half breed), but does typically good, soulful work as the one man who knows Russell’s character and what he’s capable of. Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye (the latter a long way from the glamour of playing Michael Caine’s girlfriend in The Italian Job) are somewhat incidental to proceedings but just fine as the bickering young couple. Fans of the short-lived TV series The Dakotas (recently released by the good folks at the Warner Archive Collection) might get a kick out of a brief cameo by Larry Ward, and Val Avery is also on hand as a stationmaster / barkeep.
Before making his career as a master of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard wrote several lean and mean western stories and novels, several of which were adapted into films. The Budd Boetticher – Randolph Scott western The Tall T (also featuring Richard Boone as the bad guy) and 3:10 to Yuma (both 1957) are the most famous. Hombre was the first of Leonard’s western novels to be adapted, followed not long after by the also excellent Valdez is Coming (1971), with Burt Lancaster. In addition, Tom Selleck starred in Last Stand at Saber River (1997) for TNT, back when they were in the business of making quality TV movies (including a bunch of westerns).
I haven’t read the Hombre novel, but I wouldn’t be surprised, given Leonard’s facility for quotable dialogue, if Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. (both married when they wrote the screenplay for this film) didn’t lift whole snatches of conversation from the book, so sharp is the dialogue. The script is a model of precise storytelling through character interaction, and gets a lot of mileage from the various “normal” characters bouncing off the more extreme ones, like Russell and Jones.
Hombre isn't an "Indian issues" movie per se. It doesn't push its politics too hard, those themes merely a mournful background note. But it's all there, subtly woven throughout the story and script: the casual racism and distaste many of the white characters express about the Apache, the corrupt figure of Indian agent Favor a reflection of the U.S. government's often dishonest, negligent treatment and exploitation of a conquered people. It might be a typical example of Hollywood liberal guilt, to have blue eyed Paul Newman act as the indignant spokesman for Native American rights - at least , that's the way it would play in a movie made today. Hombre makes some pointed jabs here and there, but it never comes off as heavy-handed, merely honest. One such exchange occurs early on, as Russell gets tired of Mrs. Favor's snobbish disdain of the Apaches and their downtrodden state, reduced to scrabbling for scraps of food on the San Carlos reservation:
Martin Ritt directs with a confident hand. There's plenty of nice location work, mostly around the dry scrub and hills of Arizona, and though Hombre isn't a movie filled with a lot of sweeping vistas and soaring camera-work, in keeping with its sober, thoughtful tone, nevertheless the cinematography (by legendary DP James Wong Howe) is precise, unobtrusive yet elegant. This is far more of a character-based western than an action film, though the action, when it comes, is effective (other than one strange edit, in the scene where Newman shoots Canary in the face, where it’s painfully obvious someone slopped some red paint on the frame rather than bother with doing proper special effects blood squib work on location. A similar problem can be seen in a shoot-out early in the otherwise flawless The Professionals).
While it doesn't seem to get much critical acclaim or fan attention, I find Hombre to be an absolutely top-notch western in all respects, with a tight story, crackling script, fine acting and good production values. I’d be highly surprised if its final image - of an actual vintage photograph, depicting a little white boy, aged somewhere between 7 and 10, standing with swollen-faced defiance among his Apache peers, his expression unreadable – doesn’t haunt you long past when the credits roll.
Blu-Ray/ DVD Note: The above images were taken from the 2007 Fox DVD release, which is quite affordable and has a very handsome widescreen transfer. In May 2015, Twilight Time released one of its limited Blu-Ray editions of this film. By all accounts, it features a stunning hi-def transfer. Twilight Time BDs are expensive, but the quality is generally very high, and Hombre is worth every penny.
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