The Hired Hand (12)

Review by Simon Bell

From the excesses of his cowboys-on-bikes roadtrip "Easy Rider" two years earlier, Peter Fonda's directorial debut saw him compose a lyrical Western about two drifters, grown weary of life in the saddle, returning to a more comfortable life on the homestead.

After years of roaming and on the heels of some bad trouble in the remote desert, Harry Collings (Fonda) and his sidekick Arch Harris (Warren Oates) knock on the door of the wife and daughter abandoned by Collings eight years previous.

Ordered to sleep in the barn alongside his fellow saddle-tramp, Collings must work the farm strictly as a hired hand; Hannah, his wife, is uncertain if she wants him back after her years of forced resourcefulness amid a lonely struggle.

The fresh acquaintance renews the romance, however, and Arch makes a graceful exit to endure his nomadic wandering once again. But the peace and intimacy that's been won is short-lived…

Overshadowed as it was in 1971 by such classics as "The Last Picture Show", "The French Connection", "Carnal Knowledge" and "McCabe & Mrs Miller", the 2001 revival may have been instigated to remind the cinema-going public of a forgotten minor gem.

Restored by Frank Mazzola and Hamish McAlpine, who worked together on the restoration of Donald Cammell's final film "Wild Side" to critical applause, not much has been made in the way of improvement: a few music cues shifted and a brief zoom edited away, while the odd scratch has been digitally fixed.

What was always apparent and is still unmistakeable is Oates' natural and devilish country presence. Meanhwhile, in a film that recognised a role for strong women, Verna Bloom won the admiration of many a feminist with her fascinating portrayal of the self-protective wife.

Meaningful and disconsolate, The Hired Hand is littered with metaphor: An image of the body of an eight-year-old girl caught on a fishing line suggests loss of youth and the sad truth that innocence will never be recaptured.

And Vilmos Szigmond's poetic cinematography blends with Mazzola's memorable soft montages and Bruce Langhorne's beautifully melancholic score to almost hypnotic effect.

A wistful film about life's lessons learnt through choice and sacrifice, it's one that will linger long in the mind.