Friday, 17 January 2014

1,001 Films: "Hombre" (1967)


Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Hombre formed a decent updating of Stagecoach for the America of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Paul Newman is the Apache who inherits a boarding house after the death of the white man who raised him, and with it, "a chance to be on the winning side for a change". His first instinct is to sell up, and on the way back to his reservation after concluding negotiations, he finds himself sharing the last stagecoach out of town with passengers who represent differing (mostly antagonistic, sometimes patronising) viewpoints towards Native Americans. When they find out his heritage, they demand the Apache ride on top with driver Martin Balsam, but his skills become invaluable to the group when the stage is held up - not by Injuns, but an all-American combination of muscle, big business and the law - and its passengers are left for dead in the desert.

Newman gives what now looks like one of his typical 60s performances, positioned in the sides or back of the frame, barely speaking and coolly calculating the odds, though here that marginalisation assumes a different meaning: those odds are forever stacked against a character of even his light skin tone, and it's clear this "hombre" (real name: John Russell) is unlikely to end up among the winners. Ritt juggles his narrative and themes with skill for the most part, although the sitting around debating about what to do - the emphasis on talk rather than action, unusual for this genre - starts to pall towards the end. Society has moved on such that the reminder any remake would provide might no longer be needed, but it could easily be recast with Wentworth Miller in the Newman role, Embeth Davidtz as the uptight businesswoman who ends up tied to the railway tracks, and Mickey Rourke as leering bully Cicero Grimes.

Hombre is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox.

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