The Hired Hand

Sundance Channel Home Entertainment, $39.98

PETER FONDA bummed out John Lennon, and gave him a great song lyric, by telling him during an otherwise fun LSD party, "I know what it's like to be dead." (A childhood gun mishap had briefly stopped Fonda's heart.) But in 1971, he found out what it's like to be reborn. After Easy Rider, his lackluster career got so hot that, as Fonda wittily put it, executives "went from shaking their heads in incomprehension to nodding their heads in incomprehension."

And what did he do with his newfound power? The smart thing would've been a sequel, Captain America, about his biker hero, then resplendent in Day-Glo posters on everyone's bedroom wall, mine included. Rider hit my neighborhood so hard the projectionist at the Crest actually invited kids up the fire escape into the projection booth while he ran the film and fired up doobies. The audience was stoked for Fonda's next flick.

Instead of seizing easy money, Fonda chose to thwart his fans and risk his future directing a weird Western, The Hired Hand, which has been wonderfully restored on two dics (Oct. 28) with his commentary, some interesting interviews, deleted scenes, and other extras. Fonda plays a cowboy of few words who flees a small-town tyrant (Severn Darden) with his best pal (Warren Oates) after a murder, taking refuge with the wife (Verna Bloom) he'd left seven years before to light out for the territory.

As Fonda explained on a recent promotional trip to Seattle with Bloom, he was inspired by his dad's The Oxbow Incident"It's all character-driven"and My Darling Clementine. "I thought, John Ford gets away with making an art film by calling it a Western. Why can't I?"

In fact, Fonda didn't get away with it, despite fans everywhere and friends in high places. "Coming down the elevator in the Black Tower [Universal Studios' headquarters], Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein told me, 'This is the best Western we've ever seen.' I always wondered how come marketing didn't hear what the top of the Black Tower was saying." But the marketers dumped it, practically wrecking Fonda's directing career.

TODAY, YOU CAN see why everybody but Fonda hated Hand, and why he loves it. Ford could get away with an art film because it was coherent and entertaining; Fonda's film is vague, slow, in thrall to highfalutin symbols. It's an artsy film, not an art film; but it's an interesting and heartfelt artsy film.

In the opening scene, gorgeously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters) and evocatively scored by Bruce Langhorne (Harold and Maude), the cowboys frolic in a river. "We don't have credits at the start of the film," says Fonda. "There's air, earth, water, fire." The cowboys' fishing line hooks an unknown woman's corpse in the river, and they try to reel it in. "She'd just come apart in your hands," cautions Oates. Fonda meant it as a symbol for the way everything in life falls apart for the film's characters.

Symbolism aside, what rescues the film from abstraction is the emotional depth of the performances. Oates rides tallest in one of the richest, warmest roles of his career. (He also rode high: He bought marijuana for Bloom's no-account ex-husband, who showed up on set begging for work; and pot could be why Oates forgot to light a lantern in his crucial final scene, causing a lighting problem saved by Zsigmond's skill and a miraculously timed sunset.)

In their roles, Fonda and Bloom throw subversive sparks. They're still flirting now. "The only question Verna had for me was, 'Do I have to take my clothes off?' I said the only one who gets naked in this film is Peter Fonda. She was in her lingerie in Medium Cool." Bloom denies this. Fonda teases, "Oh, I had a major crush on you." "You never told me!" she complains.

Bloom, bravely bereft of makeup in the film, plays a hardscrabble pioneer who refuses to knuckle under to desertion. She runs the farm with hired hands, sometimes taking them to bed but never into her heart. When her husband returns, she greets him not with open arms but a hired hand's deal. Despite a conventional black hat/white hat gunplay plot, the real drama of the film is the romantic tension between the wanderlusting cowboy and his stubborn yet yearning wife. It's good to have Hand back. It may not be on a par with John Ford, but it's still a keeper.

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