Blu-ray Review: The Hired Hand

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When Easy Rider became a unexpected box office hit, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper gained major clout as the leaders of the new movie world. Very quickly both men had deals with Universal to make their own movies without studio interference and a million bucks. Oddly enough both men made Westerns although from different approaches. Hopper went to Peru to make semi-surreal The Last Movie about a cowboy stuntman. Fonda set up camp in New Mexico to make a more traditional Western that didn’t come off as stuck in the past. The Hired Hand allowed Fonda to mix the violence from the Spaghetti Westerns and The Wild Bunch with the emotional pull of a modern romance.

Harry (Peter Fonda), Arch (The Wild Bunch‘s Warren Oates) and Dan (Robert Pratt) have been roaming around the wild west for years doing odd jobs and living the free life. They pull into the tiny town of Del Norte for a drink. Harry realize he need to stop roaming for a while and return to his wife. He’d left her years before. Before Harry can get on the trail home, two local goons kill Dan. Harry and Arch flee the town before they get gunned down. But they aren’t letting Dan’s death go unpunished. They twosome find the goons and exact revenge in a rather gory way. Then they flee town to head further west to Harry’s farm in California. The reunion between Harry and his wife (Animal House‘s Verna Bloom) doesn’t go well. She’s really upset that he vanished for years and isn’t ready to take him back. His own child has no memory of him. In order to stay on his farm, the wife makes him live like all the other hired hands she’s paid over the years. Can he handle this sort of reunion?

Both The Last Movie and The Hired Hand bombed when Universal released them. The Hired Hand should have done better, but the studio didn’t know how to sell it. They were expecting Easy Rider on horses and got a great Western instead. Fonda doesn’t overplay the film. Him and Warren Oates work so well as the buddies. Luckily they’d reunite as travelling pals in Ride With the Devil. The relationship between the husband and wife is not something you’d see often in a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western. Fonda didn’t make a formulaic horse opera. There’s a joke in a bonus feature that the film would have been better accepted if Fonda claimed he made it in Europe as a Spaghetti Western and redubbed everyone’s voices. He’s probably right.

The sad part is the film for is that the studio didn’t have a chance to build an audience. After it bombed at theaters, Universal butchered the film and inserted deleted scenes so it could on NBC in 1973. It’s easy to understand why the audience that was glued to Gunsmoke and Bonanza wouldn’t embrace The Hired Hand. The movie vanished for decades until it was revived by Fonda and the Sundance Channel at the turn of the century. Finally there was an audience that could embrace the nuanced performances, the editing montages of Frank Mazzola and the majesty of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. Fonda made masterpiece and thankfully The Hired Hand can now be appreciated fully.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the glory and detail of Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork and lighting. The audio is Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM Audio. The levels are fine for hearing the ambient sounds of the farm. The movie is subtitled.

Audio commentary by actor-director Peter Fonda starts with him explaining that he had in his contract that there had to be 60 feet of black between the Universal logo and the start of his film. He brings out the Bible moments he brought to the film.

The Return of The Hired Hand (58:47) is a documentary containing interviews with Fonda, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, composer Bruce Langhorne, actor Verna Bloom and others. Fonda talks about making the to make sure he wasn’t stuck playing Captain America in Easy Rider forever. The film was Vilmos’ big break and afterward did McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This was made by the Sundance Channel when they revived the film in 2003.

Deleted scenes are six scenes that got snipped including an alternate ending.

The Odd Man (52:00) Charles Gormley and Bill Forsyth’s 1978 documentary portrait of Scottish screenwriters, including Alan Sharp, the screenwriter of The Hired Hand. Sharp’s scripts included The Osterman Weekend, Damnation Alley, Night Moves and Rob Roy. Forsyth would go on to direct Gregory’s Girl.

Interview with Martin Scorsese (2:01) has Marty give a bit of an introduction. He talks about how Universal was green lighting films that would never have been made under the old Hollywood system.

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda at the National Film Theatre (76:53) an audio recording of the actors’ appearance at the NFT in 1971. The duo talk about the movie. They talk about the demise of the studio system. Oates talks about his first big film.

Stills gallery (5:00) are shots from the location.

TV Spots are four safe cuts for the folks at home.

Radio Spots are wanting you to drive your car straight to the theater.

Trailers include four versions. They really pump up the idea that Peter Fonda is riding again. Universal didn’t know how to sell this.

Arrow Video presents The Hired Hand. Directed by Peter Fonda. Screenplay by: Alan Sharp. Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates and Verna Bloom Rated: R. Running Time: 93 minutes. Released: September 18, 2018.

Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.