The Hired Hand should be called an 'alternative Western'. It's definitely a product made in the wake of Easy Rider, when clueless studio executives either threw their hands up and gave money to young longhairs to make movies, or were themselves replaced by equally clueless longhaired kids. Light in the story department and directed at a mannered crawl by Peter Fonda, the film no longer seems as unique as it did in 1971, and really only has some interesting acting moments with Verna Bloom to recommend it.
The Sundance Channel's DVD comes with a second disc loaded with extras, including a thorough docu by the surviving principals who made the film.
IN 1971, the UCLA film school was overflowing with inarticulate but sensitive kids eager to shoot movies. Many of us had long hair. We were encouraged by a faculty eager to be 'with the times', even though the key teachers were all from the school's first graduating class of 1947. When we did make movies, a lot of our output had fuzzy political content and self-conscious artsy film technique. The key essential ingredient was an actor who stared meaningfully off camera, looking cool. Too often, the only thing expressed was the filmmaker's deeply-felt lack of anything to say. I know, I made at least one of these generic student films, and possibly two.
The Hired Hand looks and feels as if an aimless student filmmaker was set loose on a feature project. The thirty minutes of thin story are a surprise from respected screenwriter Alan Sharp, the creator of great screenplays like Night Moves, Ulzana's Raid and Rob Roy. Two aimless cowboy-farmers tangle with horse thieves. The tall quiet one decides to return to the wife he deserted. There are some slow scenes of her resentment and eventual acceptance. When the family is finally re-formed, the slightly more talkative buddy realizes he's redundant and prepares to move on. Then both men are drawn into a violent situation that again threatens the wife's happiness.
In an effort to avoid Hollywoodian scripting and plot twists, the story and characters are so subdued as to barely be there at all. Meaningful looks and stares dominate the sparse dialogue: Warren Oates is the only one really doing anything like standard movie acting. Verna Bloom's situation is interesting enough to make her moods worthy of close attention. Peter Fonda is basically vacant and inexpressive. He goes through the motions and that's about it. Fonda's idea of remaking the movie West is to have everyone move in slow motion, like one's grandparents. 1
The sobriety of the drama requires that the cast hardly ever smile. What actually happens in front of the camera is mood and atmosphere acting, beautifully set off by Vilmos Zsigmond's photography, another factor that tells us we're in 1971.
Visually, the The Hired Hand is all long lenses, shallow focus, and rack focus. The exteriors lean on pretentious sunsets, silhouettes, and other 'atmospheric' visuals. A third of the movie is silent montages using slow dissolves set to the pleasant but listless score by musician Bruce Langhorne. Every few minutes the music re-starts, cueing another minute or three of Zsigmond's Clairol vistas superimposed over silhouetted cowboy hats. It may have seemed dreamy in 1971, but it dies now, even in this beautifully restored DVD.
The filmmakers report that they were so impressed with the intensity of the Fonda/Bloom/Oates triangle that they excised some action scenes and extra characters meant to fill out the film's middle section. In them writer Alan Sharp created a pressing reason for Oates' character to take his leave, and introduced actor Larry Hagman as an amusing sheriff character. If they didn't fit in, it must have been because they resembled a standard film with a story, events, dialogue and character interaction. Universal re-inserted them for a television version of the film, but for the new restoration, Fonda has pulled them out again. They're an extra on the Collector's Edition second disc and good food for thought.
Fonda's directing style could be described as Minimalist Pictorialism, avoiding dramatic confrontations that might require hard directing decisions, and settling for a muted and static tempo. After following this credo for eighty minutes, he then wraps things up in a standard Gunsmoke shootout, albeit a fairly interesting one, with a wounded Oates having trouble firing his six-gun. Suddenly, the movie becomes a pale shadow of Westerns we've seen a thousand times. Fonda does what a man's gotta do and rides off to rescue Oates, with Bloom reverting to an impassioned but standard protesting frontier woman. Fonda's counterculture Western hasn't a thing to say until it's time to fall back on the same familiar Western situations he says he's avoiding.
There's a fuzzy logic at work here: Verna Bloom's farm wife is the only one with a formed opinion about anything. Fonda aimlessly decides to come home. Oates aimlessly decides to stay with him, and then aimlessly decides to leave. The Hired Hand is about simple people following simple desires and needs, but it's not enough to sustain the movie, and Fonda's direction doesn't give us much texture or detail to compensate. A much better example of an experimental 'alternative' Western is Monte Hellman's no-budget, impressive 1966 The Shooting, also with Warren Oates.
The Sundance Channel's DVD of The Hired Hand is a beauty. The prints I saw when the movie was new weren't all that attractive, and the show was unwatchable when broken up with commercials on television. The version on view here is Fonda's original cut restored on film and then buffed for DVD, and looks extremely attractive.
The Collector's Edition extras include everything that fans of Fonda, Oates, Bloom and the movie might want to see. Disc one has Fonda's solo commentary, a relaxed talk that sticks mostly to praise for his major creative contributors, and explanations for his thematic rationale that sound like prime hippie-speak: "I wanted to get the three elements, fire air and water into this" ..."See, they cross the river going into town, the evil town. That's the River Styx, and now they're returning from purgatory."
Disc two leads with an hourlong docu that tempers Fonda's rather fuzzy observations with more cogent input from his creative team. Oates died twenty years ago but the charming Verna Bloom is on hand to beam about the film and her favorite performance. She talks about the stigma of Medium Cool where her performance was so good, people thought she was a non-professional. She's done fine unheralded work ever since in films as varied as High Plains Drifter, Animal House and The Last Temptation of Christ. Fonda restates his concern to separate himself from both his father's work and his own success in Easy Rider, and details his gathering of a special group of creatives to work with him. The composer was a session musician he liked, and the production designer an architect working on his second film. Since cameraman Laslo Kovacs was unavailable, his close buddy Vilmos Zsigmond got the nod. Both men were to become acclaimed talents in the 70s after spending the previous decade learning their craft on soft-core trash and Sci-Fi Z pictures.
The movie is overwhelmed by its indulgent montages, and the editor is on hand to tell us how he wowed his director with an opening sequence. Long dissolve opticals were difficult to do well in 1971, and with new transfer capabilities they look much better here than they did in release prints back then. 2
The docu shouldn't be seen before the film, as its many clips reprise most of the story highpoints.
Just as interesting is the gallery of deleted scenes, including the Larry Hagman town shootout sequence that only made it into the television version. There's almost 20 minutes of additional footage here. Rounding out disc two are the expected stills and artwork. The original posters show Universal's pitiful attempt to sell the show as an 'Easy Rider' Western. The behind-the-scenes production stills support the docu's stories about an idyllic shooting schedule on location in New Mexico.
The packaging is an attractive book-like case with faux-leather binding. Do you like Peter Fonda, low-key Westerns or early 70s counterculture films? The Hired Hand is a beautiful presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hired Hand rates:
1. Frankly, Fonda does
the same thing in Ulee's Gold, a movie that works well until we get tired of Fonda's (again,
I don't know a better word) vacant performance. Naturally, it earned him awards nominations. Where
Fonda really shines is in Steven Soderberg's Limey, where he's beautifully cast and forced to give a
real performance by a demanding director.
2. To create a dissolve (before nonlinear digital cutting), a film editor had to submit A, B and C-roll workprints marked for dissolves to an optical house or studio optical department. Then there would be a minimum 1 day wait to see how it turned out. As a composite image couldn't be previewed, the editor had to use his experience to predict exactly what two particular images superimposed over one another would look like. The expense, time and effort involved often resulted in dirty and scratched opticals ending up even in big films. Some of the dissolve montages in The Hired Hand are attractive, and others rather arbitrary-looking. In one, a shot is slowed down during a dissolve, and then pops to real-time when it's in the clear, indicating it was poorly planned or too expensive to re-composite.
Editor Mazzola talks about springing the entire opening montage section on Peter Fonda sight unseen, after Fonda had decreed there would be 'no montages.' Of course, Fonda loved it and asked for more and the editor was pronounced brilliant.
That opening montage, the one that Mazzola claims he made up on his own, against orders, is hundreds of feet long. Optical charges then were often $25 to $75 a foot, so either the show had carte blanche at the Universal optical department, or Mazzola was a daring artist who 'followed his muse' and took the risk of incurring major unauthorized expenses.Or maybe it's just professional jealousy on my part! The film features I cut were by contrast so impoverished, I was forbidden even reprints for any reason whatsoever!