DVD can be a great thing, a miraculous thing. If there are any doubters left, witness the miracle of how “The Hired Hand” – Peter Fonda’s wonderful, powerful directorial debut from 1971 – has been resurrected, restored and, at long last, given a proper release over 30 years since its unceremonious burial by Universal. Play this DVD and marvel at how a film long considered lost, essentially, can suddenly look like it was filmed only yesterday.
And thank the movie gods that most of this unique Western’s original participants are around to help bring it to life again, and share with us their experiences then and now. Everyone who appears on this deluxe two-disc set – from Fonda and co-star Verna Bloom to editor Frank Mazzola, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, composer Bruce Langhorne and production designer Lawrence G. Paull – radiates happiness at being given the chance to present anew this long-ago labor of love. Ain’t technology grand?
Eloquently scripted by Alan Sharp, “The Hired Hand” tells a simple, almost fable-like story with maximum nuance, humanity and visual beauty. In the late 1800s, Harry Collings (Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) are headed west with the young, innocent Dan (Robert Pratt). Arch and Dan are excited about their plans to make it all the way to Califonia, “where the ocean looks like a great blue prairie.” Then Harry reveals his own plan: to return home, to the wife he abandoned seven years earlier, and possibly make amends.
It’s not long, however, before Dan’s journey ends for good. Allegedly caught accosting the wife of a local petty tyrant, McVey (Severn Darden), Dan is cut down with a gunshot to the neck – the violence in this film really hurts. And it has long-ranging consequences. It’s implied that Dan was really killed for his horse; with this in mind, Harry finds McVey and his gang, and leaves him crawling on the floor, crying, shot in both feet.
When Harry and Arch finally find their way back to Harry’s house, the film’s true heart comes into focus, and that heart is in the person of Hannah, played with enormous sensitivity by Verna Bloom (“Medium Cool,” “Animal House”). Hannah doesn’t easily accept her wayward husband back into her home, and even allows a bit of flirtation with Arch. In addition, she has a daughter (Megan Denver) who thinks her father is dead. Harry begs Hannah to let Arch and him work the land as hired hands, nothing more. Then he must relearn how to be a husband. It’s when Arch decides to take his leave, and finally make it out to California, that the trouble they’d left behind finds the two men again.
Fonda gives a strong and subtle performance as Harry, suffused with weary resignation; it’s among his best ever. He also lets his costars shine like they never had, before or since. Many critics who were fortunate enough to have seen “The Hired Hand” in its original two-week run dubbed it a “feminist Western,” and it’s easy to see why. Bloom’s Hannah exudes a sort of intelligent, defiant sexuality not seen in movies even these days – she’s a prickly blend of schoolmarm and w***e, both Western female stereotypes in one. She never apologized for what she did in Harry’s absence, and she’s not about to start now that he’s back. And Arch represents a kinder, gentler side of Warren Oates, one of American cinema’s best-ever character actors. Anyone who only knows Oates from his work for Monte Hellman and Sam Peckinpah (not to mention “Stripes”) will be surprised and touched by how sweet, how downright mellow he is in this film.
Perhaps the biggest suprise of all is how utterly assured Fonda is as a filmmaker. After his history with Roger Corman’s acid/biker exploitation factory in the ‘60s culminated in the epochal “Easy Rider,” Fonda made a conscious decision to take a hard left into the Western genre – somehow managing to dodge his father’s long shadow. (For the record, Henry Fonda was a big fan of his son’s film.) While its slow, loping pace and dreamy, druggy rhythms place “The Hired Hand” squarely in the early ‘70s, it also seems to capture what the pace of life in the American west must have been like 100 years prior. In his introduction on Disc Two, Martin Scorsese – a key supporter of the film’s restoration – describes it as “moody, impressionistic and autumnal,” and his point is well taken, as ever.
Where so many of Universal’s big-budget films from the same era had a uniformly generic, made-for-TV look, chief “impressionist” Vilmos Zsigmond paints the screen with one lyrical ravishment after another (this was his first feature as a DP; his next would be “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” so Robert Altman dug Zsigmond’s work here too). The beauty on display in “The Hired Hand” exemplifies why ‘70s films sometimes seem to come not only from another era, but another country, another world entirely. The flow of Zsigmond’s images and Bruce Langhorne’s gorgeous, delicate musical score is simply hypnotic.
Editor/restoration producer Mazzola, who began his career as an actor – appearing in “Rebel without a Cause” among other films – honed his incredibly trippy, innovative cutting style on Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s British psychedelic gangster epic “Performance,” a late-‘60s classic that could also benefit from a bit of Mazzola’s restorative magic. Mazzola’s style is simply unique; no one had cut a montage the way he did at the time, but his influence seems to be everywhere now (start with Soderbergh, particularly in 1999’s “The Limey.” And can it be coincidence that one of that film’s stars is…Peter Fonda?)
Considering the film’s many montages is just one reason to marvel at how pristine the transfer looks on this DVD. Given the multiple, densely layered images, still frames, slow fades and luxuriant dissolves, it’s astonishing to note the lack of scratches, streaks, even a single speck of dirt. Even film grain is kept to a minimum. The colors are crisply rendered, blacks and shadow detail are perfect, and there’s barely a hint of digital artifacting. In addition, the original mono soundtrack has been given a 5.1 makeover, letting Langhorne’s music envelop the viewer in sonic beauty.
Rounding out Disc One is Fonda’s genial, always informative audio commentary. But the second disc of the Collector’s Edition is a goldmine. There’s an illuminating hour-long doc, “The Return of The Hired Hand,” produced by the Sundance Channel. There’s a generous supply of deleted scenes, including one ten-minute section of the film – which was reinserted for TV airplay throughout the ‘70s – featuring a bearded Larry Hagman as the town sheriff. Also on Disc Two are several different TV spots and theatrical trailers, most of which look as terrific as the film itself, and all of which hysterically oversell the film as some sort of exploitation shoot-em-up (with voiceover shrieking, “Peter Fonda is back! Moving fast! Riding hard!”). Thorough cast and crew biographies complete the set.
Thanks to Sundance/Showtime, “The Hired Hand” now becomes only the second film – following Monte Hellman’s cult legend “Two-Lane Blacktop” – from Ned Tanen’s so-called “youth directors” slate to be made available on DVD. (Among the others, all from 1971: “Taking Off,” Milos Forman’s first U.S. film; “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” for which Carrie Snodgress received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Dennis Hopper’s infamously incoherent drug freakout “The Last Movie”). Hopefully all of these fascinating films will get new leases on life one day soon.
But for now, it’s a rare pleasure to see “The Hired Hand,” after more than three decades in the wilderness, find its way back where it belongs and have its well-deserved day in the sun.