3 December 2000 | Derek-31
Fonda's overlooked masterpiece
This is not only an overlooked western, but a sorely overlooked piece of filmmaking, beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (who uses some of the slowest dissolves anywhere in cinema) and directed by Peter Fonda, who seemed bent on capturing an authentic period flavor often missing from westerns of that time. His eye for detail, and his refusal to insert too much of it, is impressive for a young director. That is, the visual authenticity, like the acting performances and dialogue, work by way of understatement. This is a very understated film, at a time when few coming from the American market were.
Ultimately, it is a sort of 'buddy' film about the deep friendship between two characters played by Fonda and Warren Oates. It also has in common with EASY RIDER the tragic, "backward" movement from West to East, which goes against the "natural" flow of American history and literature, and which ends in death here as in the earlier film, when the "hired hand" of the title takes on a sadly ironic new meaning.
Fonda directs his actors in an understated, low-key, highly naturalistic style; Warren Oates was never warmer or more at ease seeming on camera. It is good to see him relaxed and even jovial. His character is genuinely disturbed when forced to shoot in self defense a menacing drunk taking shots at him. Larry Hagman even gives a good performance here in an uncredited role as a town sheriff, caught in an awkward spot when peace in the community demands he ask Oates to leave his jurisdiction. The off-beat comedian and actor Severn Darden (memorable from THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST, 1966) appears here in an uncharacteristic role as a malignant villain. Bruce Langhorne's music is among the most haunting anywhere in film. It will stay with you.
This film is a work of true film ART, where most westerns of its day (e.g. John Wayne's) were little more than loud, mass-market entertainments. The understated THE HIRED HAND will probably not satisfy western fans looking for action and violence in the Wayne or Eastwood mold. It is closer in feel to, say, Jan Troell's ZANDY'S BRIDE, made in the mid-70s, or HEARTLAND, the highly realistic drama of frontier struggle that closed the 70s. Yet even those who favor Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) should appreciate the literate script of THE HIRED HAND, written by Alan Sharp, whose credits include Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES (1975), and the equally overlooked Robert Aldrich western, ULZANA'S RAID (1972), which presents even more intense moral complexities.
THE HIRED HAND is, alas, now difficult to see. But make the effort, and you will be greatly rewarded.
-- Derek Bousé