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The Hired Hand

Underseen but critically lauded, first-time director Peter Fonda's 1971 revisionist western The Hired Hand is considered by some to be the precursor of modern genre classics like Unforgiven (Fonda has said that Clint Eastwood admitted to screening The Hired Hand for inspiration), taking an unexpected approach to well-trod territory. Given only a very limited release by Universal, who were unsure how to market what they had expected to be a straightforward oater, it's been difficult to find until now — but a 2003 art-house tour of the restored picture and this lovingly produced two-disc presentation from Sundance Channel Home Entertainment have made it possible for this under-appreciated gem to, hopefully, find the audience it deserves. Fonda plays Harry Collings, a road-weary cowboy who returns home to his wife and daughter after seven years. Collings and his grizzled saddle pal Arch (Warren Oates) consign themselves to work for Collings' wife, Hannah — a phenomenal, earthy Verna Bloom — as hired hands on the farm, bunking together in the barn. The story lazily explores the relationship between three characters, in particular Hannah's envy of the men's intimacy and her own complex new relationship with her husband, and Collings' ambivalent anger when he learns that Hannah's had a few hired hands in her bed during his prolonged absence. The Hired Hand is a languid, strange, and beautiful movie, shot with majestic perfection by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and augmented by Bruce Langhorne's touching score. It's a haunting film full of heavy — but never heavy-handed — symbolic imagery, with complex, tragic characters that linger in the memory long after the film has ended. Sundance offers The Hired Hand in a gorgeous two-disc package, presenting the film in a pristine restored anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is excellent, showcasing Langhorne's lovely music without sacrificing dialogue. Extras include an excellent commentary by Peter Fonda, who is obviously enthusiastic about this opportunity to talk about the film — he's charming, articulate, and scene-specific, and his track offers a real depth to the experience of watching the film. Disc Two features a new documentary, "The Return of The Hired Hand" (59 min.), with new interviews with Fonda, cast, and crew; a thumbs-up for the movie by Martin Scorsese (2 min.); a wealth of deleted scenes; still galleries with behind-the-scenes photos, posters, production stills, and more; trailers and TV spots; and cast-and-crew notes. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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