The first five minutes of The Hired Hand - directed by Peter Fonda – is one of the most visually unique openings you'll ever experience in a movie. At once artistic and conceptually remarkable it makes you realize that director Peter Fonda was trying to make a new kind of Western that fit the sensibilities of the early 1970's. However, few people saw the film when it opened and even fewer are aware of it today.
Directed by Peter Fonda in 1970 in and around Northern New Mexico the film is a quasi-symbolic Western (with hippie overtones) about a man name Harry - played by Fonda - who decides to stop wandering and settle back down with the woman he left seven years earlier.
His grizzled sidekick Arch, played by Warren Oates, comes along to earn a little money before heading to the West coast. Before Fonda can return to the peaceful Eden of country life he and Oates shoot up the home of a man who 'accidentally' killed a young traveling companion of theirs. They scurry out of town but - anyone who have ever seen a Western knows that - they will have to face their newfound nemesis someday in the future.
But forget the story for a moment. The thing that makes The Hired Hand such a special movie is the way it is made. The naturalistic cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, the very impressionistic editing by Frank Mazzola and the engaging, affecting score by Bruce Langhorne take the film from merely a good story to an artistic triumph.
Besides the visual element the film also has great acting. Warren Oates as Fonda's sidekick is tailor-made for the role. He was an actor who specialized in rough and tumble characters and he seemed to fit so comfortably within the time period that it was hard to believe, at times, that he was acting. Here he plays a quieter but no less effective role. The woman of the story is played by Verna Bloom who is a tough, independent woman so right on in the role you wouldn't believe that she was a New York actor. Fonda himself is understated as the laconic 'hero' and he performs most of his emotional actions with his eyes and restrained gestures.
The Hired Hand is unique in the same way that Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller is unique not only for its distinctive look and mood but in the way that it deals with the more internal elements of characters in the old West. In this way, The Hired Hand is not a traditional Western in the sense that there is a shoot-em-up in every other scene; although there are a couple of those. Instead it is about the loneliness of hired hands in the West who find if difficult to both pursue their dreams and settling down. It's also about the sacrifices that one must make for loyalty.
The DVD's image quality looks very good. The image is presented in 1.85:1 and has been recently restored. The film is beautifully rendered by ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (his first) and has a few amazing montage scenes with black, blue and yellow imagery all mixed together giving the film a highly impressionistic look. Previous video copies have looked very poor but the print has really been cleaned up and looks as good if not better than it did when it was released in 1971. Much of the film is shot in natural light and has the gritty look of a real western environment in the late 19th century.
The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is excellent. Front and center is Bruce Langhorne's beautiful score; a score that honestly lends the film a lot of its mood but without sacrificing the image or overshadowing the story – like a Danny Elfman score would. The film doesn't have a lot of dialogue: I've seen it three times in the last few years and at times it seems like a silent film – although the script by Alan Sharp is pithy and literate and most every line can be heard well. Occasionally, not unlike McCabe and Mrs Miller there is a natural sound quality that makes the dialogue less than sharp.
**There are two different DVD versions of the film available. One is a single disc with the movie and a commentary track by Fonda. The other is a double disc with the second disc full of additional features**
The Commentary Track by Peter Fonda, which accompanies the film, has a very conversational tone. In it Fonda is very praiseworthy of everyone involved with the film and he obviously considers the film a special one for him. Throughout the commentary he gives his own symbolic / metaphorical readings of the film; for instance, the opening is like the birth of man and in the film the three main men characters represent 'wisdom', ambiguity' and 'innocence'. Fonda also has some interesting technical insights and good behind-the-scene tales.
The second disc has a 53 minute documentary titled; The Return of the Hired Hand, which features a good many interviews with the cast and crew and reiterates many of the things Fonda talks about in his commentary. Also included are six deleted scenes which run from 1 minute to 9 minutes. Most of the scenes are alternate takes or in-between scenes that link the other scenes together. However, the longest deleted scene (9 minutes) has a completely different feel from the rest of the film. It includes a saloon shoot-out and a good scene with Larry Hagman (who's not in the finished film) as a sheriff who comes to visit Fonda and Oates' characters. Also included are three theatrical trailers, four TV spots and four radio spots all of which prove that Universal tried to market the movie like it was a typical Western.
Rounding out the extras on Disc two are a two-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese and 64 behind the scene photos, a couple dozen production stills, a dozen posters and advertising stills. Last but not least are notes on the production and the restoration.
The Hired Hand is an under-seen but critically praised Western made in the 1970's when Hollywood allowed the director a lot more artistic autonomy. The cinematic style is a bit dated and the film moves at a slow – but engrossing – pace. However, the cinematography, editing and musical score are all outstanding (in an artistic way) making the film a fine one in any era. The DVD presentation is excellent in all departments. Consumers have the option of buying one Disc or two. The two Disc set is the full meal deal and is recommended for fans of the film. If you are simply interested in the seeing the film then the single disc will do just fine. Highly recommended.