Alan Sharp wrote the screenplay for one of my very favorite films, Dean Spanley. It is notably superior to the Edward Plunkett short story it was based on. So I’ve been going back and watching some other films he wrote. Last week, I wrote about The Osterman Weekend, Idealistic Basis of Liberal Patriotism. And before I had written about another of his movies, Night Moves and the Tragic Search for the Truth. This last weekend, I got a copy of another film, The Hired Hand.
It is a Peter Fonda film, released in 1971, just a month and a half after Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. It shouldn’t be surprising that the films look a lot alike; they were both lit by Vilmos Zsigmond. But there is much less of a flamboyant quality to it in The Hired Hand. And that is what most comes across in the film: the effort to tell the story in the most direct way possible. But that’s not to say that film is all that direct. For one thing, Sharp leaves a whole lot unstated. For another, the editing by Frank Mazzola (at Fonda’s request) is ostentatious, even while it is largely effective.
The Hired Hand tells the story of Harry Collings (Fonda). When he was 20 years old, he married a 30 year old woman. She had a daughter and soon after, Collings hit the trail, spending the next 7 years wandering around with Arch Harris (Warren Oates). Collings decides to go back home and try to get back together with his wife. Complications ensue. First, his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom) is not a shrinking violet, but a strong and self-assured woman. Second, the film is bookmarked by the story of the killing of a friend of Collings and Harris, and their reprisal and counter-reprisal.
In addition to McCabe & Mrs Mill, the film reminded me of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 classic El Topo. There is something about the pacing, the lack of specificity. Is the story really about Harry Collings? Certainly in the context of Hollywood it is. But he isn’t very interesting. By far, Hannah is the most interesting character. There is a clear reading of the film in which men really are interchangeable: the hired hands. At one point, Hannah even says so to Harris, “Wouldn’t really matter if it was you or him tonight.” Of course, you don’t need to see it that way. At The American Conservative, Bill Kauffman wrote that it was “a lovely meditation on friendship and responsibility.” I see that; I just don’t really agree with it.
But that’s when films are at their best: when they take the viewers seriously enough to have them take part in the creation of the work. Still, I think that both McCabe & Mrs Miller and El Topo are better. That’s mostly because The Hired Hand is too short. If you took out flashy transitions, I doubt the film would be 70 minutes long. So I think the viewer is left with the feeling that there isn’t quite enough material to gnaw on. But it still offers far more nourishment than most films.