May 05, 2004

The Hired Hand

Films like The Hired Hand are why I am a movie buff. This is a beautiful film -- a sparse and simple story -- the ideal western. A story of human beings and their paths in life, laid against an absolutely incredible backdrop of New Mexico sunsets and vistas. Seeing this is like finding a lost priceless treasure hidden away in the attic of an abandoned house.

The Hired Hand is Peter Fonda's directorial debut from 1971, two years after Easy Rider. He plays the central character in this film too. Apparently there were some problems with its release and promotion back in the early 70's, so it has languished in obscurity until recently. Fonda and editor Frank Mazzola have done a re-edit for DVD released under the Sundance logo.

The box first caught my eye at the vid store a couple of weeks ago. Then I happened to see some stuff on the web about it, and how it's supposed to be so good. This was enough synchronicity for me to bring it home. Harry (Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) have been riding together for 7 years, but Harry is suddenly caught with the desire to return to the wife and daughter he left behind. The story is of him working his way back into his homelife, like a hired hand.

Since beginning this blog I've started to think that you really shouldn't write about a film after only one viewing. And, in the past I haven't been one to rewatch a disk with the director's commentary. More often than not the commentary is just self-indulgent crap. But I am glad that I've chosen to hear Fonda's remarks on The Hired Hand. His passion for this film, and movie-making/storytelling in general, shines. He lends genuine insight to both the story and telling of it, giving its mythological basis. If you rent this DVD, indulge yourself in Peter's commentary.

The sparseness of this film is like the work of a brilliant visual artist who can take 5 simple black lines and arrange them on the paper such that they bring a tear to your eye. Fonda's acting is very good, his direction better, but Warren Oates really makes this film, along with Verna Bloom who plays Harry's wife. If anybody was born to play a cowboy it was Warren Oates -- you can smell his sweat-soaked saddle and tobacco breath. Warren must've worked cattle drives in a previous life. Like Peter says, Oates died way to young (1982).

The visuals of this film make the dialog practically unnecessary. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is beyond excellent. He's since done all manner of films like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and The Two Jakes just to name a few. You will notice too the soundtrack. The music by Bruce Langhorne is just as simple and sparsely beautiful as the film itself. If I hear it right, all he does is arpeggiate a few chords on guitars and banjos, more like a sound texture than composition. But if you've ever heard a poet read his words with a musician playing behind him, and the richness and additional dimension that the music provides the experience, you will have an idea of what Langhorne's music does for this film.

Speaking of poets, I was surprised to see Michael McClure's name on the list of acting credits at IMDB. (I was also stunned to find out that he was born in Marysville, KS.) He's the old beat poet from the 60's. Peter refers to him as a playwrite in his commentary. I saw Michael at a Taos Poetry Circus a few years ago, performing with Ray Manzarek, ex of The Doors. He plays a saloon smartass and gets hit in the back by Warren Oates' character.

Each moment of The Hired Hand is like a work of art that you want to cherish and hold on to. I will regret returning this DVD to Hollywood Video today. The visuals and music are so captivating I could watch it many many times. I doubt that I see a film this year as affecting as this one.

Posted by Wayne at May 5, 2004 02:15 PM
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