Tuesday, 1 January 2013

ELMORE LEONARD'S HOMBRE

I'd never read Hombre, probably because I knew the movie so well that it never occured to me to go back and seek it out after I'd exhausted all Elmore Leonard's other westerns, and the magnificent collection of his western stories. But I came a across a copy recently, and read it as a little Christmas treat for myself. It turned out to be more of a Christmas treat, it's a superb novel, whose strong points typify what makes Leonard so good.

The biggest difference from the film version is that Leonard's story is told from the point of view of a young man, whose job with the stagecoach company that's closing down of the local office provides the starting mechanism for the plot. Carl is extremely naive, and not very courageous, and he's the one who has the rifle in the book's climactic scenes, and his version of events that is the only one being told. He's a more dependable narrator than, say, Charles Portis' Mattie in True Grit, which came a bit after Hombre and might well have been influenced slightly by it. The obvious influence on Leonard is Stagecoach, which similarly puts the passengers together on the stage, and includes one figure of authority who's fleeing with an agenda of his own.

John Russell, raised by Apaches, is the hero, and he's a quieter character in Leonard's version, remembering that it's Carl's perception that is passed down to us. In the film, Carl turns into a young man who's leaving with his wife, along with the woman (Diane Cliento) who ran the boarding house Russell inherited and which he's closed down. You can see how the movie involves Russell more in white society even before he gets on the stage--in Leonard's book it's not a decision he's fully embraced yet--and the Cilento character becomes a woman who was kidnapped by Apaches and lived with them for two months. This serves to heighten both the racial tension and debate, and also to emphasise Russell's ultimate decision when it comes to the codes each race lives by. Leonard's Russell is less knowable (again, remember, we are at the mercy of our narrator), and his actions more matter-of-fact than the film's star; Newman plays him far more Christ-like at film's end. But then he is Paul Newman; when you read the description of Russell's blue eyes you realise Newman was almost perfect for the role, and he plays with almost the restraint it requires, although in the end it always seems improbable that Paul Newman would be turned away from anything, even if he were an Indian.

Where the movie is superior in in the villains. Frederic March and Richard Boone are each, in their own ways, hams at heart; March draws out every drop of venal hypocrisy from his portrayal of the corrupt Indian agent Favor. His slickness contrasts perfectly with Boone's sandpaper roughness; just as Boone's bombast and earthiness contrasts with Newman's restraint. Boone's best roles were as likeable villains (see The Tall T), and he injects Grimes (called Braden in the book; the name is shifted to Cameron Mitchell's outlaw in the film), with a perfect mix of cruelty, charm, and slyness. Between them Favor and Grimes define the bit of white civilisation not defined by women. Barbara Rush, as Audra Favor, makes the most of what is a rather thankless role, but the better she plays it, the more difficult and telling Russell's final decision becomes.

Unlike the original film version of 3:10 To Yuma, where an entire backstory was tacked onto Leonard's movie, filling it out brilliantly (what the remake did is another story!), the film follows the book pretty faithfully, and is all the better for that. But it inevitably has to show things Leonard lets you intuit for yourself; he builds his characters by letting them say and do, and letting you compare those things. That you are placed behind the eyes of a naive young man probably tells us more about ourselves, as readers of, or perhaps believers in, the myths of the West than we need to know, and that's what makes Hombre so brilliantly discomforting.

Hombre by Elmore Leonard
originally published by Ballantine in 1961
Orion Phoenix Books, £8.99 ISBN 9780753819111

No comments :