Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hired Hand

Peter Fonda, the director, calls this 90-minute long 1971 Universal Pictures film "an incredibly different Western," "a revisionist Western." It sure is different from all the others I have seen! Fonda's audio commentary really helps explain what he was trying to do when filming The Hired Hand and makes it obvious that it is definitely a film of its time.

Fonda stars as Harry and Warren Oates as his partner of seven years, Arch. The movie, set in 1881, opens with an oddly-filmed scene along the Rio Grande in New Mexico (the movie was filmed on location). Somewhere along the way, they have picked up Dan, played by Robert Pratt (Billy in Night of the Red Dog); he wants to see California and the Pacific Ocean and since the two older drifters have nothing better to do, they go as well.

However, when they stop at a town in the desert to quench their thirst and see to their horses, bad things happen and plans change. Harry, wearing a slightly fancier sheepskin jacket than Kid, goes "home" to the wife and child he abandoned years earlier, and Arch accompanies him. The rest of The Hired Hand is about the relationship between Harry and his wife, Hannah, played by Verna Bloom, and the relationship between Harry and Arch.

The Hired Hand seems almost like it was filmed in slow motion: Each scene takes its time unfolding and there is a minimum of talking. There are lots of close-ups of faces, lots of scenes filmed in silhouette, and lots of sunsets which are filmed beautifully. There are also many places where scenes are slowly dissolved into each other and the audience sees the two images superimposed, a technique that becomes tedious as the movie drags on. The Hired Hand seems more like a sequence of separate scenes strung together than a film with a cohesive plot, until the violent end when it becomes obvious why it was necessary to have a partner in the Old West who would always watch your back.

Because there were no opening credits for The Hired Hand, it wasn't until the end when the closing credits appeared that I realized Severn Darden (Alan Harlingen and his father, Oscar, in Never Trust an Honest Man) was in this movie. He plays a very bad guy and although I hadn't recognized him at first--I don't think I've ever seen him in anything else--once I knew who his character was, the resemblance was obvious. He looks thinner here, even though his appearance in ASJ was the same year, but his voice is very similar. Ann Doran (Mrs. Simpson in Witness to a Lynching) has a small part as a middle-aged busybody who needles Hannah about her husband.