Somehow The Hired Hand escaped my viewing until just a few months ago, and that's peculiar because I'm a Warren Oates enthusiast (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) and enjoy other films where he teams with the underrated Peter Fonda (Race With The Devil) who also directed this 1971 revisionist western. The running time is brisk at just over ninety minutes and that works to the film's advantage because the plot is straightforward, building on character development and eschewing gratuitous action scenes. Fonda plays Harry Collings and Oates is Arch Harris, two drifters headed for the California coast when Harry, weary of the meandering lifestyle, decides to return to his wife and daughter that he abandoned several years earlier. Arch counts Harry as a good friend and because of his easygoing demeanor tags along.
Hannah Collings (Verna Bloom) gives her wayward husband a justified cold welcome assuming he will once again leave her. She's a progressive thinker and has done quite well without him once she got over the initial hurt. Hannah allows Harry and Arch to stick around to work as hired hands, maintaining her distance; still, the married couple eventually find a route back to each other's hearts. Arch realizes he needs to move on since not only is three a crowd but he finds Hannah attractive as well. Ms. Bloom dominates every frame she's in, building a complicated, nuanced character. But this is still a Western, and there's a violent shootout after Arch is kidnapped by some thugs who he and Harry had run afoul at the beginning of the story. It's about one of the most realistic, choreographed gun plays I've ever watched.
Peter Fonda does an adept job of directing though I could do without the slo-mo and the ocassional out-of-focus angles that were all the rage of the late sixties and early seventies cinema. That trivial note aside, this is a fine film for fans of westerns and Warren Oates aficionados alike, especially those who wish to get away from exhausted tropes that plague the genre. And perhaps because of the unorthodox approach, I wasn't surprised to read The Hired Hand was a commercial failure on its initial release—now it's regarded as one of the defining films of the 1970s.
The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.