Friday, January 31, 2014

Seen It: The Hired Hand (1971)

Netflix continues to be an excellent resource for all sorts of Westerns I had not previously heard of, my most recent find being Peter Fonda's directorial debut (and follow-up to his iconic turn as "Captain America" in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969)), The Hired Hand. In many ways this wonderful film is the perfect palette cleanser for today's loud and obvious cinema. The Hired Hand retains many of the stylistic flourishes and meditative qualities that were so uniquely presented in Easy Rider, such as the overlapping fade-in transitions, languid, poetic montages, and the way in that the camera slowly follows character interactions--all which stand in sharp contrast to modern film making's sped up shaky cams and "tell me now" storytelling.

From the opening establishing scene, a somber tone is set. Our two protagonists, Harry Collings (Fonda) and Arch Harris (character actor Warren Oates, probably best remembered as Sgt. Hulka in Stripes) are making plans (along with a younger traveling companion) to head to California. Suddenly, Harry decides to change course and stop in on the wife he left behind many years ago to travel with Arch.

Along the way, as often happens in Westerns, the three stop in a rough, town for a drink and run into some tough customers. After exacting some painful revenge on a group of locals for the death of their friend, Arch and Harry skip town, but it is clear that their actions will have repercussions later on, and it is this external conflict that drives much of the narrative.

In The Hired Hand, however, it is the internal conflicts of the three main characters, especially after the two reach Harry's old homestead and the character of Hannah Collings (played by Verna Bloom) is introduced. Still angered by Harry's withdrawal from her (and their daughter's) life, Hannah allows Harry to stay, but not in the house, in the barn working as the hired hand of the film's title. Arch, ever the loyal partner, stays with Harry in order to help his partner repair this damaged relationship.

Of the things that do make The Hired Hand recommended viewing, it is Warren Oates performance that is foremost. As played by Oates, Arch is the only character that is provided with the opportunity, by virtue of his sincere and honest humor, and as seen through his clear affection for others, to develop beyond the somber, sad realities depicted here.

Helped immensely by Bruce Langhonre's haunting (and critically acclaimed) score and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's picturesque vistas, The Hired Hand (1971) works best for me as a character study, albeit one with with some good ol' fashioned gun play thrown in for good measure. An early American bromance of sorts (much like fellow neo-Western Easy Rider), while longer available  streaming on Netflix it is part of their hard copy library. Many finer public libraries may also have an old copy waiting on it's shelves to be rediscovered.

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