“How many honest men you know? Hell, you separate the sinners and the saints and you‘re lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, so I say let‘s dip some of our bread in that gravy while it‘s still hot!” - Rancher Hud Bannon, played by Paul Newman, from the 1963 movie “Hud”
It‘s one of the great films of all time, adapted from the excellent novel "Horseman, Pass By" written by Larry McMurtry. Though shot black and white, lacking explosions, computer generated imagery, and all the juicy special effects we‘ve come to expect in our jaded technological age, “Hud” nevertheless still crackles with powerful emotions and motifs - the struggle between right and wrong, played out on the barren windswept Texas plains.
It‘s a family drama, with Melvyn Douglas as the aging Homer Bannon, father to a younger son Hud Bannon (played by the late, great Paul Newman) that he regards with barely concealed contempt; a 17-year old grandson (Lonnie Bannon, played by Brandon De Wilde), the only child of his elder son Norman, killed by Hud in a car wreck after a night of heavy drinking; and Patricia Neal as Alma Brown, the wisecracking live-in house keeper. (Douglas and Neal both won Oscars for their performances by the way, as did Jame Wong Howe for Best Cinematography for black and white film.)
Early in the film, Homer‘s cattle get infected with hoof-and-mouth disease and eventually - once the diagnosis is confirmed - must all be put down, shattering the family business. Against this backdrop, Hud and Homer begin the end of their long battle with each other. Hud - a reckless womanizer, boozer and bar brawler, yet lean and charming all the same - pushes for Homer to sell the infected cattle, regardless of the risks, such as potentially touching off a nationwide epidemic. Homer, a man of ingrained principle, refuses - just as he refuses to allow oil wells on his property, an idea Hud pushes hard for.
“That's your solution for getting out of a tight?” asks Homer. “To pass bad beef on to my neighbors who wouldn‘t know what they was getting? Or maybe risk starting an epidemic in the entire country?”
The nephew Lonnie, beguiled by Hud‘s charm, starts drifting into his corner until a late-night showdown with Homer clears the air for everyone. “I went sour on you a long time before Norman died,” he says, staring down Hud with stone-cold eyes. “You just don‘t give a damn; that‘s the whole of it. You don‘t give a damn about people. You don‘t give a damn about anything.”
[The verbal showdown scene between Homer and Hud .]
It‘s a brutal truth, one Hud confirms as the film progresses - hiring a lawyer to take the ranch from Homer due to the old man‘s ‘incompetence” by allowing the herd to become infected; by trying to rape Alma the house keeper (a truly horrific scene, especially for 1963); by trying to buy his nephew‘s support in his ranch-pinching scheme by promising easy money.
Homer dies before Hud can take the ranch from him - from injuries suffered from falling off his horse, not long after killing his herd - and Hud ends up alone on the empty ranch, with Alma and Lonnie both leaving town for destinations unknown. What becomes of Hud, we never know - but his complete abandonment makes me think he came to a bad, lonely end. Maybe in a bar fight, or from a gun wielded by one of the many cuckolded husbands in town. Perhaps he can‘t sell the land to oil prospectors and winds up dead broke. You just have a feeling the fates are starting to close in on him.
I watch Hud every chance I get (which, fortunately for me, is quite often, thanks to that great Cable TV channel Turner Classic Movies - the second greatest invention of Ted Turner next to CNN) because it‘s a classic character study of what right and wrong really means - especially for businessmen and women the world over.
Hud is always out for one thing: Hud. Nothing else matters. He befriends Lonnie - the son of the brother he killed - for no other reason than to eventually help bolster his attempt to undercut his father Homer. There‘s no guilty conscience there, no reservations about using his brother‘s surviving flesh and blood for his own ends. Hud can also have any woman in town - even the married ones - but because Alma the house keeper resists his advances, he turns to force to get his way.
And then there are the cattle. The first thing Hud does when he realizes his inheritance may be threatened is to try and push the problem somewhere else - even trade on the hard-earned Bannon reputation for good quality beef and get a high price for it, no matter the eventual consequences. As long as Hud gets his money, the devil may take the rest.
[It's interesting to note that the late Paul Newman was absolutely nothing like Hud Bannon -- faithful to his wife, giving all the profits from his food venture "Newman's Own" to charity.]
Sound familiar? Look at a recent story from the Associated Press about the internal conversations going on at the big credit ratings agencies - Standard & Poor‘s, Moody‘s and Fitch Inc. According to the ongoing investigation by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, those agencies made enormous profits as they issued ratings on a ballooning number of mortgage-related securities, many of which were given top ratings so long as housing prices went up.
Now, S&P has downgraded more than two-thirds of its AAA-rated securities, while Moody's has downgraded more than 5,000 mortgage-backed securities - pretty much an admission that they weren‘t worth the paper they were printed on; like infected beef sold to unsuspecting ranchers.
The AP reported that at a presentation made to the Moody‘s board of directors a year ago, top executive Raymond McDaniel warned the board that company employees sometimes “drink the Kool Aid” and accede to pressure for undeservedly high ratings, even as the weaknesses of the securities were becoming apparent. “It turns out that ratings quality has surprisingly few friends: issuers want high ratings; investors don't want ratings downgrades; shortsighted bankers labor shortsightedly to game the ratings agencies,” McDaniel said.
Similar stuff goes on in trucking, of course - such as abusive “lease-to-own” programs whereby carriers saddle unsuspecting owner-operators with high monthly truck payments, deductions from settlements for maintenance, and then short them on available freight. Sure the carrier gets their money and puts the entire onus of running the truck on the owner-operator‘s back. But bankrupting them in the process isn‘t good business - and that‘s come back to haunt many of them.
It‘s worthy to note here that the late Paul Newman was the complete opposite of Hud Bannon in real life - married to his second wife Joanne Woodward for 50 years and donating 100% of the profits from his food company, Newman‘s Own, to various charities - totaling some $250 million over its history. Sure it‘s a tough world - but that‘s no reason for going out and adding to the misery purely to make a buck. Hud the movie character highlights the pitfalls, while Paul Newman exemplified the good that‘s possible. Those are some worthy lessons if you ask me.