Easygoing actor Peter Fonda’s directorial career never amounted to much (he’s only made three movies thus far, each of less interest than the preceding), so it’s surprising just how good his first film was. Made at a time when Fonda was synonymous with the counterculture movement, The Hired Hand is a throwback instead of a contemporary tale, but it’s infused with themes that resonate with the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” era. The Hired Hand is also a glorious exercise in ’70s-cinema style, featuring luminous photography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond and an evocative acoustic score by Bruce Langhorne. So, even if the story is a bit thin, the piece is engrossing on other levels.
Fonda stars as Harry Collings, a world-weary cowboy roaming the West with his amiable pal, Arch Harris (Warren Oates), and a younger man who recently joined their travels, Dan (Robert Pratt). Rolling into a tiny town one day, the three have drinks while Harry explains that he’s decided to quit his cowboy lifestyle and return to the homestead he abandoned 11 years ago. (Harry walked away from his wife and young child because he felt trapped by domesticity.) Before Harry can make his break, he and his companions get into a battle with McVey (Severn Darden), the brutal thug who lords over the small town.
Dan dies and McVey is badly injured, but Harry and Arch figure the matter is settled, so they head off to Harry’s old farm. The duo discovers that bitter experience has transformed Hannah Collings (Verna Bloom) from a wide-eyed newlywed to a tough frontier woman—she’s understandably ambivalent about her husband’s return. What ensues is a simple but touching story about emotional connections, the obligations of friendship, and the repercussions of violence.
Even with genuine-sounding dialogue by screenwriter Alan Sharp, who wrote a handful of offbeat ’70s Westerns, The Hired Hand is more effective as a tone poem than as a narrative. Zsigmond’s photography is wonderfully naturalistic, full of blazing colors and moody silhouettes, so the movie looks like an expertly shot travelogue. Editor Frank Mazzola, who receives an unusual credit for “film editing and montages,” works wonders with Zsigmond’s footage, solarizing and/or tweaking speeds to create lyrical passages set to Langhorne’s downbeat melodies—these montages are gorgeous meditations on sensation and texture.
Perhaps Fonda’s most interesting directorial choice is steering the cast, himself included, toward restraint. Bloom, Fonda, and Oates speak so infrequently, and with such economy, that silences says as much as their words. Similarly, these characters guard their emotions so closely that we find ourselves peering into their eyes for glimpses of inner life. The Hired Hand falls short of greatness because of its lack of ambition and its overreliance on familiar themes, but as a mood piece, it’s superlative.
The Hired Hand: GROOVY