The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda / U.S., 1971):

Peter Fonda decides that the journey in Easy Rider required some clarification, thus the cowboys here really are cowboys, the protracted lyricism of their riverbed Valhalla gives way to a little girlís corpse drifting in the stream. The saddle tramp (Fonda) is weary of wondering, calls off the trek to California, pines for home. "Home," sighs fellow rambler Warren Oates. "Maybe there ainít no such color." The farm Fonda left behind nearly a decade earlier is still in place but his wife (Verna Bloom) has taken to calling herself a widow, the men can stay only as hired help. Bloom is genuine frontier-gal material, unglamorous and stoic yet mysteriously erotic while sitting on a porch rocker and recounting her previous dalliances with handymen: "It was all right at the time... Out in the fields, or in the hay... Sometimes... just down on the dirt." However, the triangle that emerges has not her but Oates as the alluring apex, a symbol of wanderlust for Fonda and of plain lust for Bloom; ceremonial parallel montage sends the friend riding into blurriness while the wife uneasily welcomes the husband back into her bed. Earth tones and battered stucco are the presiding shades, smudged slow-motion and overlapping freeze-frames impose a twilight flow. If Dennis Hopper dismantles revisionist-Western ennui in The Last Movie, Fonda embellishes it with poetic muddiness -- the most vibrant players are the shifting reds and yellows and oranges in Vilmos Zsigmondís dusky skies. The obligatory faux-crucifixion eventually must take place, so the narrative steers itself towards a sort of molasses Peckinpah climax in a deserted town. Mostly a waiting room separating Ride in the Whirlwind and Heavenís Gate (and Dead Man), though with an undeniable lingering aftertaste of its own. With Robert Pratt, Severn Darden, Rita Rogers, and Ann Doran.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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