Thursday, August 6, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Hired Hand (1971)

The Hired Hand (1971) 
Directed by: Peter Fonda.
Written by: Alan Sharp.
Starring: Peter Fonda (Harry Collings), Warren Oates (Arch Harris), Verna Bloom (Hannah Collings), Robert Pratt (Dan Griffen), Severn Darden (McVey), Rita Rogers (Mexican Woman), Ann Doran (Mrs. Sorenson), Ted Markland (Luke), Owen Orr (Mace), Al Hopson (Bartender), Megan Denver (Janey Collings), Michael McClure (Plummer), Gray Johnson (Will). 


In the wake of the massive, unexpected success of Easy Rider (1969), Peter Fonda – it’s co-writer, producer and star was pretty much given carte blanche to direct a movie – and what he came up with was The Hired Hand (1971) – the failure of which is sad for a number of reasons, the biggest being that Fonda didn’t really go on to a directing career – making just two other films – although this film shows he should have. Like many films that help to define a generation, Easy Rider has aged more than most – it remains a classic of American cinema, but it’s outsized influence in kicking off the Golden Age of 1970s American cinema (although with a few other films from the time) probably gives it a better reputation than it deserves. It is very much of its time and place – even if it’s line “We blew it” – was able to see the end of this short-lived era even before it really began. The Hired Hand though feels somewhat fresher – perhaps because it isn’t as well-known as Easy Rider, its greatness wasn’t copied to death in subsequent years. There were more than a few counter-culture Westerns at the time – all of them sad and tragic, all of them looking to undermine this most American of genres that produced lastly images of American heroism in John Wayne (and, Fonda’s own father) – but saw that built on lies. The Hired Hand wants to be, and is, a corrective of those films.

 In the film, Fonda plays Harry, who has been a cowboy, drifting the lonely prairies driving cattle alongside his partner, Arch (Warren Oates, perhaps the patron saint of these kinds of films – see The Wild Bunch, Two-Lane Blacktop, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Badlands, etc.) for years now, and have just picked up a younger man – Dan (Robert Pratt) who unlike the two older men still has a sense of romanticism and adventure about him. They have finished their latest job, and contemplating what to do next – Dan wants to push out to California, see the ocean – and Arch may go with him. But Harry decides that now is the time to return home to the wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) and daughter he abandoned years ago. Dan, of course, is the sacrificial lamb of the group – so once he dies, tragically and pointlessly (an obvious reference to the Vietnam war) Harry and Arch return to see Hannah, who isn’t exactly overjoyed to see Harry. She has had to make her own way all these years now on her farm – and says that Harry has given up any right to expect to be treated as a husband and father. She does offer him a job though – he can be the hired hand their farm needs. They agree not to tell their young daughter who he is.

The Hired Hand is a quiet film – it doesn’t really go out of its way to explain itself, and more often than not, the big, emotional moments are ones where characters exchange looks. The film is connected to Easy Rider in its way – because Harry has also essentially “dropped out” of society for all these years. When he decides he wants back in, it isn’t so easy – he cannot go home again. Hannah is also far more complex than women usually are – she isn’t the helpless victim, waiting for a man to rescue her. She is frank about what has happened over the years – she will hire men to work on the farm, and often they will also share her bed – but she kicks them out before they get too comfortable. She says it doesn’t much matter who shares her bed these days – and its telling that she says this not to Harry, but to Arch, who is listening intently while stroking her foot. That’s the extent of their physical connection in the film – but it’s weighted and meaningful just the same.

Fonda was smart with his directorial debut to surround himself with a great crew – probably no one more so than Vilmos Zsigmond as the cinematographer, the same year he did God level work in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller – which captures the vast loneliness of the American West. Zsigmond, of course, went onto a great career – but just as crucial are the contributions of editor Frank Mazzola and composer Bruce Langhorne, who in particular make the montages in the film stand-out.

In the end though, this is Fonda’s film. His sense as a director is wonderful, as his presence as an actor. He plays Harry as the walking dead – a man who is tired of being away from home, but can longer return home either. Some of the plot mechanics don’t make a ton of sense down the stretch – when Harry once again has to choose between staying home and helping his friend – but is perhaps necessary to get him to make that choice, and show it’s not really a choice at all. Harry no longer belongs anywhere – and never will again. And he knows it – but perhaps senses that Arch isn’t quite the same. There is hope for him yet – but Harry is doomed.

No comments:

Post a Comment