The Hired Hand (1971)

The Hired Hand (1971), directed by Peter Fonda.

This had been on my list for years and I wish I had gotten to it sooner. A friend and I were astonished at how much we enjoyed it, a great find.

I don't think it is correct to call it a "revisionist" western, which I associate with extra violence and the cynical inversion of heroes and villains. We have a traditional story with realistic minimalism in sets and clothes and the actors wear no makeup. Even some shooting action, sudden and deadly.

The plot is lean but well told: returning home and rekindling abandoned love, then having to leave it behind again.

The leanness is balanced by lovely cinematography of faces and landscapes with judicious use of brief slow motion and artistic composites. This is the first feature film photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond -- Deliverance (1972), The Sugarland Express (1974), Heaven's Gate (1980).

Superb performances by the leads:

It is so rare in films for people to just speak honestly. Hearing that his wife has been sleeping with hired hands the returning husband confronts her. She replies calmly, bluntly and without shame:


You were long gone before anybody got into my bed. That was as long as I could stand it. I walked about this room on nights like this, going crazy for a man. Any man. Didn't matter. And sometimes when there was a man out there, he knew about it and he'd come in and I'd have him or he'd have me, whatever suits you.

But not all of them and not every time I wanted to.

And when the season's work was over I'd pay him off, no matter how well he'd worked or how well he'd pleased me, 'cause the man that's in a woman's bed thinks he's her boss and sooner or later they'd have tried to move their tackle out of the shed and in here, and I didn't want that, 'cause I'd already had one man in here and I didn't want another.

Even critics who did not like the film at the time praised Bruce Langhorne's lovely solo score. It has that extra twangy resonator guitar sound, but the instrument was a 20th century invention. The wikipedia says sitar, fiddle, and banjo were the instruments, so maybe I'm wrong.

Available on Blu-ray from Arrow. The director provides a fond, reflective commentary, explaining his thinking at every step.