Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand" is a languorously spiritual Western about a young man who grows up into responsibility. We meet him after he has abandoned his wife and child to go back to the simple life of a cowboy journeyman. Then he decides, after some years have passed, to go back to his wife and start again.
He returns with his best friend (Warren Oates), and along the trail they come into contact with a malevolent villain named McVey (played by the satisfactorily evil Severn Darden). They injure McVey, unwisely as it turns out. When they arrive at the ranch, the cowboy's wife takes him on as a hired hand to begin with. But he has changed and grown old enough to be the husband of a woman 10 years his senior, and at last she takes him back into her bedroom.
All of this happens in a succession of shimmering photographic images, slow dissolves, sunstruck double-exposures and camera work that seems lyrical for a Western. "The Hired Hand" is a very quiet movie, for that matter, drawing on the detached mysticism that Peter Fonda always seems to exude. The music by Bruce Langhorne is a series of variations on simple themes, played in a straightforward manner by a few folk instruments.
The result of all this is that "The Hired Hand" doesn't pay off for audiences looking for a Western. Although good Westerns have always been morality plays, most of them have arrived at morality after a journey through a violent and action-oriented story. That doesn't happen here; the villain simply kidnaps the best friend, and announces he will cut off one of Oates' fingers every week until Fonda comes to rescue him. This leads to a foredoomed confrontation and to a death that is as inevitable as the deaths at the end of "Easy Rider."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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