The Essential Warren Oates: THE HIRED HAND (1971)

Coming off the success of EASY RIDER, Universal gave Peter Fonda one million dollars to make any movie he wanted. What he came back with was a hypnotically slight meditation on freedom and responsibility, with the great Warren Oates as its beating heart. The film flopped, of course.

Which is too bad. Peter Fonda’s directorial debut isn’t necessarily a great film, but it’s a really beautiful and interesting one. A hippie western, The Hired Hand is languid and while not particularly psychedelic is completely informed by the hallucinatory rhythms of LSD and mushrooms. Part of that semi-impressionistic feel comes from Fonda having cut about 20 minutes of plot out of the movie, leaving a film that slowly feels its way along something approaching - but never quite being - a narrative.

Fonda is Harry Collings, a skinny-assed, bobble-headed wanderer who is making his way west with sidekick Arch Harris (Warren Oates) and a kid named Dan; they’ve been on the road for a long time, but suddenly Harry decides he wants to go home to the wife he left behind years ago. When the trio stop in a town to pick up supplies Dan ends up shot dead. That night Arch and Harry take revenge on the killer by blowing his feet off, and then they high tail it to the Collings ranch.

But things at home aren’t peachy, and Harry’s wife Hannah, played by Verna Bloom with authentic hardscrabble frontier beauty, isn’t so happy to see him. After all, the guy’s been gone for years, and she’s moved on. She allows Harry to stay as a hired hand, slowly winning his way back into her heart. Soon Harry has to decide whether to stay with her or to save Arch, who has fallen into the hands of Dan’s killers.

That’s a pretty spoilery synopsis, since it’s just about the entire movie. Like I said, it’s thin on plot, and The Hired Hand takes its time getting anywhere. But it’s a great ride to take slowly. While Fonda is way too serious as the cowboy seeking meaning, Oates makes the entire picture with good humor and charisma. Fonda gave up part of his producing fee to bring Oates on, and you can see why - without the spark in Arch Harris, the film is dead in the water. Oates allows you to understand the dilemma that Harry faces at the end, and it’s more than just deciding between his wife and saving his friend. Oates, in every scene, no matter how mundane, gives you a glimpse of the camaraderie and good times of the road.

But Oates gets to do more than that. He has a wonderfully quiet, romantic scene with Verna Bloom. Sitting on the porch after a day working alongside Harry, Arch slowly reaches out his hand to touch her ankle; it’s a small, shockingly intimate moment. Oates doesn’t say much - he’s mostly listening to her - but the tentative motion of his hand, the angle of his neck, the set of his mouth, say very much. It’s a really wonderful moment of acting that’s as good as any of the broader, badasser moments for which he was better known.

Another element that makes The Hired Hand a special film is the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond. The same year he shot McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Robert Altman Zsigmond does something very different with The Hired Hand; while every moment of that mining town western was filled with grit and darkness, The Hired Hand is soaked in soft light and every shot is a beautiful, almost picturesque look at an almost empty world.

Fonda and his editor Frank Mazzola use the beautiful images of Zsigmond in a number of pretentious yet wonderful montages and dissolves. The film is filled with arty, self-conscious moments where a still image will linger as the frame dissolves to a close up of a sparkling stream or something, and it should never work yet somehow it totally does. There’s an earnestness here that irritated critics in the day but in the 21st century feels fresh and maybe even a little daring. And again, the casting of Oates perfectly counterbalances all of Fonda’s self-serious posturing. It was a brilliant move on the director’s part.

The poster for The Hired Hand promises Western action, which does eventually arrive but in far too small a dose to satisfy audiences of the time. Fonda’s movie is a meditation on the impossibility of tranquility and about how you always end up having to deal with your past, whether it be the wife you left behind or the guy whose toes you shot off in the last town.

It’s interesting to note that The Hired Hand came out the same year as Two-Lane Blacktop. Both are stories of American disaffection, but both use Oates so differently. Where he’s the square and the mark in Two-Lane, he’s the best friend and the face of something freer in The Hired Hand. Either way, by the end of the year Warren Oates was firmly established in the New Hollywood counterculture.