Little-known western The Hired Hand is a lyrical evocation of the Old West, and a deeply affecting human drama. A trio of drifters – Collings (Peter Fonda), Harris (Warren Oates) and Griffin (Robert Pratt) – head towards California. Stopping at the shanty town of Del Norte, Griffin is framed for rape and sadistically gunned down by a local thief, who is himself shot by Collings and Harris to avenge their friend. Travelling on, the pair reach the homestead owned by Collings’ wife Hannah (Verna Bloom), who he abandoned seven years earlier.
After persuading her to employ them both as hired hands, Collings slowly begins to reassert his position in the family home, increasing the discomfort for Harris, who decides to leave. Shortly afterwards, a stranger arrives with a parcel containing one of Harris’s fingers, and the message that Collings must attend a showdown, or his friend will die…
Defying the perception of his own career – Henry’s son, Jane’s brother, Bridget’s father – Peter Fonda asserts his individual talent emphatically with this astounding tale described back in 1971 as ‘immediately fully accomplished.’ In addition to his leading performance, he composes a complex mise-en-scene, with Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography employed to reinforce the men’s sense of insignificance and duty. Add to this the importance of Hannah (intensified by Bloom’s handling of the role) and you have an orthodox genre movie years ahead of its time.
Withdrawn after just two weeks on its original release, the film was buried and, as with Night of the Hunter, came close to dissuading its director from a second feature. Yet Fonda subsequently worked on Idaho Transfer – which he is said to be interested in exhuming – and found a renaissance in front of the camera thanks to Ulee’s Gold and The Limey.
USA / Universal – Pando / 93 minutes / 1971
Writer: Alan Sharp / Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond / Music: Bruce Langhorne / Producer: William Hayward / Director: Peter Fonda
Cast: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom, Robert Pratt, Severn Darden