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Hired Hand, The

Peter Fonda

Another reminder of American cinema’s early ’70s ‘golden age’ comes with this reissue of a film so striking you wonder how it’s been virtually forgotten for three decades. After the phenomenon of Easy Rider, Peter Fonda’s follow-up was also his directorial debut, a slow-burning Western scripted by Scottish writer Alan Sharp (Ulzana’s Raid, Night Moves), notable for its placement of a strong female character in the frontier landscape. Fonda also plays cowboy Harry Collings, who’s tired of life on the range with his faithful riding partner Arch (Warren Oates), and returns to the ranch where he’d left his wife years before. In the meantime, his spouse Hannah (Verna Bloom) has told their young daughter her father is dead, so she takes the two men on as hired help. A strange menage-à-trois shifts into focus, as Harry finds himself increasingly torn between the possibility of renewing his domestic life, or the strong responsibility he feels towards Arch, who’s sensed there’s no real place for him on the couple’s homestead.
Fonda’s direction allows the characters’ dilemmas to unfold at a gentle pace, underscoring their significance with a variety of freeze-frames, slow dissolves and overlapping images to the accompaniment of Bruce Langhorne’s lovely acoustic guitar score. Stylistically, it looks very much of its time, but it leaves plenty of room to ponder how Harry’s divided loyalties reflect on the unspoken emotion of relationships between men, and offers tribute to the fortitude of those women who faced the West’s hardships on their own. Bloom’s performance is one of burning resolve, Oates is a marvel of keenly expressive minimalism, and Fonda’s restless lead embodies his statement ‘Maybe there’s no such place as home, just somewhere you start out from.’ An essential rediscovery.
U.S.A., 1971. Restored version, 2001. Colour. 90 mins.

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