Three saddle tramps—Harry Collings (Peter Fonda), Archie Harris (Warren Oates), and Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt)—are on their way to California when they stop off at a desolate town identified as Del Norte. Dan needs his horse shod, and while the trio down whiskey in a cantina, Harry informs Arch that he’s decided to return to the woman he married before he and his friend began drifting together seven years earlier. Harry’s decision gets easier when Dan is gunned down by a man named McVey (Severn Darden), who claims the youngster tried to attack his woman (Rita Rogers); both Harry and Arch find McVey’s story a little suspect, and on their way out of town the next morning, Harry manages to cripple McVey (by shooting him in the soles of both feet) during an ambush at McVey’s house.
Arriving at the farm he abandoned so many years ago, Harry gets an understandably chilly welcome from his estranged wife Hannah (Verna Bloom). Hannah agrees to let Harry stay on as a hired hand, but she asks him not to let their daughter Janey (Megan Denver) know he’s her father (she’s told the child her father is dead). Arch agrees to help out Harry; he also learns—thanks to a loudmouth barfly in town—that during Harry’s absence, Hannah has had quite a few “hired hands” around the farm…who got a little more than just room and board, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Harry decides to take charge of his responsibilities by posting a notice in town that there’ll be no more need for “hired hands” at the Collings farm. The relationship between he and Hannah starts to soften, and even Arch realizes it’s time for him to mosey so as to allow his friend enough space to mend fences. Arch resumes his trek to California…until some unfinished business from Del Norte gets in the way.
With the success of Easy Rider (1969)—a movie that, while breaking a lot of the rules in Hollywood, also nearly ruined the motion picture industry when every studio tried to duplicate its success—actor Peter Fonda could write his own ticket in Tinsel Town. He decided to break the typecasting of “a pot-smoking biker” by taking on The Hired Hand (1971) as his directorial debut; Fonda had read Alan Sharp’s screenplay while he was promoting Rider in London and was bowled over by the content. Universal Studios gave Fonda a $1,000,000 budget to make Hand (they also gave his Rider co-star Dennis Hopper the same amount to make The Last Movie, released the same year) as part of a “semi-independent” project for young filmmakers: the studio would let these neophytes make the movies they wanted with no interference—the directors even had final cut. (Three other films made this way were Milos Forman’s Taking Off , Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running , and George Lucas’ American Graffiti .)
Fonda hired Vilmos Zsigmond to handle the cinematography on the advice of Laszlo Kovacs (the cinematographer on Easy Rider), whom Fonda had wanted for The Hired Hand but was busy working on Alex in Wonderland . The choice was an inspired one; Zsigmond’s work on Hand ranks among the best of his career (it’s very similar to what he accomplished on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, released the same year) and it earned much of the movie’s critical praise…even from those who didn’t think much of the film. (Pete told “Ziggy” he wanted the movie to emulate his father’s My Darling Clementine…only in color.) Fonda also tabbed Bruce Langhorne for Hand’s music; it would be Bruce’s feature film debut (he later went on to Jonathan Demme movies like Fighting Mad  and Melvin and Howard ) and again, critics who didn’t necessarily warm to Hired Hand nevertheless singled out Langhorne’s lyrically exquisite score.
The reviews for The Hired Hand were quite tepid at the time of its release; many critics dismissed it as a “hippie-western,” with Time magazine really getting the boot in by describing it as “pointless, virtually plotless, all but motionless and a lode of pap.” Yet with the passage of time (no pun intended), the critics have become a bit kinder to the film (particularly after it was restored in 2001 and shown at several festivals); Bill Kaufman rightly terms it “a lovely meditation on friendship and responsibility, one of the least-known great movies of that richest of all cinematic eras, the early 1970s.”
Not only were the reviews for Hired Hand unenthusiastic…the box office take was so dismal it needed a bake sale. Universal sold the film to NBC for a TV showing in 1973 and included some seventeen minutes of discarded footage that featured Larry Hagman as a sheriff who runs Warren Oates’ character out of town. I have not had a chance to watch all of the extras on the new Arrow Academy Blu-ray release of the film (released this past Tuesday, September 18) but I suspect the deleted scenes included duplicate the Hagman material, originally available on the 2001 Sundance Channel release.
The Arrow Blu-ray—many thanks to Clint Weiler of MVD for the screener copy—is a high-definition release from the original Universal film elements. It also includes a 2003 documentary, The Return of the Hired Hand (with interviews from Fonda, Bloom, Zsigmond, Langhorne and others), as well as a 1978 doc co-directed by Bill Forsyth, The Odd Man, which spotlights Scottish screenwriters (Hand’s Alan Sharp is among those featured). There’s an audio commentary from Pete, as well as a stills gallery, TV/radio spots, and even more goodies. An exemplary Blu-ray, betcha by golly wow…with a swell accompanying booklet from Sunset Gun’s Kim Morgan.
Peter Fonda is one of those actors who got better at his craft as he matured–he received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Ulee’s Gold (1997—which I revisited recently via HDNet Movies), and had a hilarious comic turn in the 1993 cult vampire flick Nadja, playing Van Helsing. The Hired Hand features one of Fonda’s best performances, a noticeable improvement on his sleepwalking in Easy Rider…and yet I’ve always been intrigued by the similarities between the two films (after all, Rider is essentially a “modern day” western). Both Wyatt (from Easy Rider) and Harry are stoic, soft-spoken drifters affected by wanderlust, and travel with a sidekick (Arch in Hand, Billy in Rider) who’s a little more in the loquacious department. Both Fonda men are also in need of a lasting romantical companionship, and while Harry may be a tragic character in the same league as Wyatt, he at least has the reassurance of a good woman’s love (Wyatt’s only attachment is a prostitute he picks up in a New Orleans brothel).
As good as Fonda is…Warren Oates (as Archie) is better, but hey—he’s Warren Oates, after all. The actor’s performance in The Hired Hand complements an earlier turn of Warren’s in the Monte Hellman-directed cult oater The Shooting (1967—both movies would make a heck of a double feature); both characters are hard-luck drifters who suffer defeats despite their philosophy of (to borrow one of my favorite lines from 1940s The Grapes of Wrath) “I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ anybody, that’s all.” Interestingly, Oates’ Archie develops far more of a rapport with Hannah and Janey than Harry does initially—I love the scene where the two men prepare for a trip into town and Janey reminds them they promised to bring her back a piece of candy. (Archie feigns ignorance at first, and then pulls out a list to let the little girl know “Candy for Janey” is on it.) Hannah is saddened when Arch announces his intention of moving on…even though she knows it has to be if she and Harry are going to make things right.
Peter Fonda’s sister Jane suggested Lee Grant for the part of Hannah, but a few dissenters suggested the director check out Verna Bloom’s performance in my favorite movie from the 60s, Medium Cool (1969). Peter hadn’t seen the film (he was preoccupied with Rider) and initially thought that Bloom was just like her character in Cool—a backwards woman from Appalachia. Fonda was soon corrected of this notion, and when he offered the role Hannah to the actress Bloom expressed concern that she would have to take her clothes off for the film. Peter reassured her than in a “Peter Fonda film” only one person would be nude…Peter Fonda. (The supporting cast in Hand also includes TDOY fave Ann Doran [as a busybody neighbor who’s dying for a peek at Hannah’s returned spouse] and the always sensational Severn Darden, who nicely modulates his turn as McVey, the villain of the piece.)
The Hired Hand has always been a solid favorite at the Yesteryear Ranch; it’s not a perfect film, to be sure, but all the elements—the acting, cinematography, script, etc.—make it more than just a run-of-the-mill oater…it’s a work of art. I debated Wednesday night as to whether to show this one to the patriarch here at Rancho Yesteryear (dear ol’ Dad) but when I remembered the revulsion he displayed for McCabe and Mrs. Miller I decided to keep it for myself. (He didn’t hate every Western that was released in 1971—it was, after all, the year of Big Jake…and he even liked the Frank Perry-directed Doc—but as a rule, it’s a safer call to go with one of the ten million sagebrush sagas that Audie Murphy made for Universal-International in the 1950s/1960s.) The Hired Hand is a movie that I positively treasure…and one that I can unequivocally watch again and again.