Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Langhorne’

The Hired Hand (1971) is one of my personal top ten Best Movies You Probably Never Saw, and I’m delighted to see it get more recognition. It’s a perfect example of what can be done in such a tired old genre as the Western.

Written by Alan Sharp, the maximally character-driven script is a relationship story disguised as a western. Thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond, it gets an A for cinematography, with trippy stuff like multiple exposures of glorious lush natural vistas. What I love about it is, of course, the strong female character Hannah, who is self-defining and sure of her rights without being abrasive, nasty or self-pitying. She’s plain but magnetic. Just in case we miss the point, the other female character stereotypically “sexy” and miserably unhappy. Here’s the story:

Harry and Arch have been bumming around the countryside together for seven years. Dan is a younger fellow who recently started riding with them. Arch and Dan are fixing to leave for the Coast and check out the Gold Rush.

Suddenly Harry announces that he’s going home to the wife and daughter he left behind. He can’t remember what color her eyes were, but he feels the need to go back and settle down.

The three men ride into a weird little cruddy town. Dan is shot dead by a supposedly wronged husband, who then barges into the cantina, brandishing a smoking gun, followed by his supposedly raped wife, clutching a blanket around her nakedness. Dan is buried to the accompaniment of a Bible verse that should be quoted more often: “The kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.” Adding insult to injury, someone also steals the kid’s horse. Harry and Arch go after the killer, shoot him in both feet and get the horse back.

Arch accompanies Harry back to the place where he’s presumed to be dead. When they married, he was 20 and Hannah was 30. He left after a year and 9 months. He says it wasn’t her fault but his; he just wasn’t ready.

In those days, from the age of about 14 onward, men thought of themselves as being ready for anything. So Harry’s insight about not being ready for marriage might seem anachronistic. On the other hand, there are always, in the most unlikely times and places, individuals who will say things like that. People knew a lot about their own inner workings, at least some of them did, a long time before encounter groups were invented.

In the next town they ask at the saloon about getting some work, and overhear talk about the Widow Collins, who is of course Hannah. There is some innuendo about hired hands she has employed in the past.

At the farm the “widow” and her daughter come out to meet the newcomers. Recognizing Harry, Hannah is instantly defensive and suspicious, and sends the child inside. It’s the fulfillment of every woman’s fantasy, that some day he will come back, but Hannah is outwardly unmoved. Harry says “Just let me work the place for a bit like a hired hand.” She agrees, on condition that Harry doesn’t upset the girl by revealing his identity. After supper, she sends the men out to the stable to sleep.

Alone with Hannah out on the verandah one night, Arch tries to put in a few good words for his friend. She tells him it’s just a matter of time before Harry leaves again.

In town, a local yokel taunts Arch about Hannah’s reputation for being free with her favors, implying that a whole succession of hired men have done way more than fix the chicken coop. Arch decks the bigmouth, but Harry knows what it’s about. Arch advises him not to judge Hannah or even to ask her any questions, pointing out that Harry is hardly in a position to take the moral high ground. Harry ignores the advice and self-righteously confronts Hannah. Quietly but firmly defiant, she stands up for her rights. Yes, she takes lovers and then kicks them out at will. That’s the way she likes it, and who is he to complain? Sexual autonomy is a privilege she’s earned by surviving Harry’s betrayal. You get the feeling Harry wishes he had never brought it up. He goes into town and puts up notices, “No further hired help needed.”

The four from the farm go into town, which Hannah has pretty much avoided in the past years. On Main Street she takes Harry’s arm. At first they’re not sure whether they’re being ostracized or if people are genuinely indifferent to their presence. The sheriff extends a cordial public greeting, so it seems like everything is okay. But not for long. In the saloon, the trouble-making townie stud draws on them. Tables are knocked over, glass is shattered, things are tense. Finally Arch finds the bartender’s Derringer behind the bar and plugs the troublemaker.

In another confidential nighttime porch conversation, Hannah tells Arch – truthfully, or out of a need not to appear vulnerable – that one man in her bed is as good as another. She would just as soon sleep with Arch as with Harry or any of the hired men.

Later the sheriff rides out to say that even though Arch shot the guy in self-defense, he should probably hit the road, for his own safety. Hannah wants him to leave too. As long as Arch is around, she would always be worried about Harry taking off with him again. “He’s what you left me for, Harry. I know you hadn’t met him yet, but he’s what you were looking for.” It’s as if he’d brought another woman home and given her the spare room.

The little girl has gotten fond of Arch, and it’s a sad leavetaking all round. That evening, Hannah tremblingly says, “I hope I’ll be all right for you, Harry.” He takes a bath and fortifies himself with a couple swigs of Double Eagle. The reunited couple make love and declare their tender feelings for each other. Life begins anew.

But soon a messenger arrives, bearing Arch’s severed finger, sent by the guy with the bullet wounds in his feet. Harry saddles up. Hannah says, “You planned this, you never meant to stay.” He swears he’ll just get Arch out of trouble and come right back.

Arch is in a jail cell, where the killer’s miserable, abused wife, the one he allegedly raped, smuggles him water and, eventually, a pistol. The husband shoots Harry; Arch gets out and shoots the husband. Dying in the dust, Harry he says, “Hold me, Arch.”

In the last, no-dialog scene, Arch rides back to Hannah’s, leading Harry’s empty horse. He puts the horses in the barn. The implication is that he will take up the obligation of looking out for Harry’s family.


A big part of this movie’s magic comes from the score, recorded on a two-track tape machine in a garage. The composer is Bruce Langhorne, who did not let the partial amputation of three fingers stop him from becoming a legendary guitarist. He is the man Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man” was written for. There’s more about Langhorne at the Venice Beach Marching Society.

Although some bits were added when I found another set of notes from another viewing, this piece about The Hired Hand (1971) was originally published April 30, 2002. Shortly afterward, in the June 3, 2002 issue of The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann reported on the first TriBeCa Film Festival, saying,

This exceptional film was released in 1971 in fifty-two theaters, as compared with the two thousand-plus theaters that most Hollywood pictures open in… Lately, with the help of the Martin Scorsese Foundation and others, the negative was recovered and an excellent print was made.

The restored version was shown at the 2001 Venice Film Festival. In September of 2005, it was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and reviewed in glowing terms by Michael Sragow in The New Yorker. It’s always delightful to be vindicated.

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