Peter Fonda had just starred in and co-wrote Easy Rider which captured the counterculture zeitgeist but also was an enormous box-office hit worldwide. Fonda had the itching to direct and his directorial debut The Hired Hand one of the many films Universal Pictures bankrolled for young directors. Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop were two others, the one condition for these films were they had to cost only one million dollars.
The Hired Hand is very much of its time and certainly falls into the acid western and revisionist western trends. The film opens with this extraordinary montage done by the editor Frank Mazzola who used dissolves, overlapping photography and of course slow motion which gives a slightly trippy dreamy vibe to the proceedings. The master cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond who shot lots of the great films of the ’70s shot this and considered it his first real film.
Fonda stars as the lead Harry Colling who has been living a nomadic life with his buddy Arch Harris (Warren Oates) along with the younger Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt). They think about going to California but Harry decides to go back home to see his wife who he hasn’t seen for years. Dan gets killed on the way and Harry gets an icy reception at home but stays to work around their place. The film’s last act becomes a poetic revenge western which as they always do end in tragedy.
It’s a beautiful film which runs at a methodical but quick pace of 91 minutes. It’s very much a film made by people who took probably a bit too much acid and smoked a bit too much pot in the ’60s and have finally got the hangover. However its a visually arresting from the first shot to the very last which is helped enormously by the montages. Fonda has rarely been this good and Oates is well Warren Oates who can make even the worst film better with his presence. It might be short on plot but is high on atmosphere which has helped its cult following and must have intrigued Martin Scorsese to spearhead its restoration.
Arrow Academy has given the film a handsome new package which mostly consists of the features on the previous special edition such as the Fonda commentary, the 2003 documentary and the short intro by Scorsese. However Arrow has unearthed some fascinating features which includes a documentary by Bill Forsyth on Scottish screenwriters which includes The Hired Hand‘s Alan Sharpe who also wrote the ’70s Neo-Noir Night Moves. The other new feature is an audio recording of a Q&A by Fonda and Oates in 1971 at NFT. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing by Kim Morgan.