The blue-eyed Paul Newman as a half-breed Apache? Weren't there quite a few folks a-waiting on a stage considering that the stagecoach company was practically defunct, presumably because of a lack of customers? Why didn't most of them, 'ceptin' the women folk, ride horses rather than take the stage? Why did they leave the water in the mine shaft? If you're sure the nasty bandito is going to shoot at you, why tell the kid to "wait 'til he reaches for his gun" before shooting him?
I asked a lot of questions while watching HOMBRE, and that usually ain't a good thing. Considering this was taken from a novel written by the usually reliable Elmore Leonard, it's a little mystifying as well.
A cynic would say these plot pimples were necessary to make things work. Look, you ain't gonna put brown contacts on Paul Newman's eyes, for criminy sake, and in 1967 there weren't many stars with stronger box office than Newman. We had to get the folks together on a stagecoach so Barbara Rush, the wife of corrupt Indian agent Frederic March, could get the vapors and see to it that half-breed John Russell (Newman) would be asked to ride on the roof. We had to keep the boys off the horses and on the benches because we needed to see bad guy Grimes (Richard Boone, excellent as usual) stink up the coach with his boorish manners and his cigars. They had to leave the water in the mine shaft so that the corrupt Indian agent Dr. Alex Favor (March) could reunite his venal self with the group.
That said, with all its question, HOMBRE is a good movie. In a beautiful opening scene a boss horse leads a group of wild horses into a corral. Director Martin Ritt is a master at sustained scenes that build with little or no dialogue.
HOMBRE belongs in that herd of movies that came out in the 60s and 70s that cast a critical eye on American culture. They reflected the tensions in society - hawks versus doves, pacifists versus Joe hardhats, the silent majority versus the vocal minority. Like other movies of that ilk, HOMBRE has a quasi-religious outsider at the center of the movie, and that central character is used to reflect and magnify the failures of society. In HOMBRE the white men are venal, immature, corrupt, evil and impotent.
The transitional figure, the one that links the hero to the dominant society, is the Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam.) That a movie attacking racism should cast the anything-but-latino Balsam is one of the sweet ironies of the time. Balsam is good, though, and in a pivotal scene with Russell he lays it out for him. Russell's adoptive uncle has died and leaves him a boarding house and some land. Leaves him a stake in society. He tells Russell, who is living on the reservation at the time, to get his haircut. Look like a white man. Make it easier on yourself. "A Mexican," Mendez says, " is closer to a white man than an Apache. I'll tell you that." Tune out, turn off and drop in, Hombre.
Well, quasi-religious figures in a Judeo- Christian culture haven't got a lot of options left by the time they reach the end of the last reel. For some strange reason we find ritual bloodletting deeply satisfying and a road sign to Higher Meaning. So be it. Many people will love HOMBRE for its passion. For my part, I'll remember with fondest pleasure watching Richard Boone guffaw, threaten, and intimidate his bad bad self through an otherwise okay western.
The only extras on this dvd are a clutch of theatrical trailers for Paul Newman movies. The trailer for THE HUSTLER has a snazzy, jazzy feel to it and I recommend it.