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RIDE THE HIRED DEVIL SHADE: FONDA OATES 70'S TRIPLE FEATURE

Peter Fonda & Warren Oates Cinematic Trilogy
On the heels of the EASY RIDER phenomenon, the times that were a'changing had changed, giving birth to the Renaissance Era of the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's, where directors had free reign and almost full control of ventures not completely intended for mass audience consumption...

from THE HIRED HAND
And that revolution's masthead, "Captain America" himself, Peter Fonda, instead of taking typical leading man roles, went obscure and "eclectic" (his word on a Howard Stern interview) as opposed to conventional or mainstream: His mangy sidekick in Dennis Hopper had altered into a three-film collaboration with a vitally energetic and often downright dangerous Warren Oates, and this is an unrelated trilogy beginning with their final collaboration and then counting down...

Warren watching Peter hopping ashore
92 IN THE SHADE: The only of the three Peter Fonda/Warren Oates movies that has the duo pitted against each other. The title describes the atmosphere while Warren's dire expression embodies the overall mood, and the very often cinema-doomed Peter Fonda, willing to die on screen in a Messianic fashion, awaits his fishing charter-boat rival's threat to kill him, caused by a retaliation from Fonda, who brought an explosive to a proverbial knife fight, blowing up his competition's boat after a practical joke done on him: two old-timer clients were intentionally hijacked after Fonda waded through the reedy waters, following a stuck-line leading to a large, beautiful fish he sets free – this scene embodies the meticulous flow and precise direction of the film's writer, future RANCHO DELUXE and MISSOURI BREAKS scribe, Thomas McGuane...

Oates and Stanton in SHADE Year: 1975
A counter-culture Film Noir as the balmy yet uncomfortable, exterior-gothic Florida locale serves as a humid purgatory where the residents are bizarre and yet, being so lived-into their surroundings, seem completely normal, somehow.

Personal Collection Key VHS
Harry Dean Stanton takes the third banana role as Oates's second man in the charter, a seemingly nice fellow who is really a sly manipulator.

The boats are small and their master's dreams are even less. Basically, two men, who'd been around as long as the paint on the local beer dive's dilapidated walls, strive to remain the only fishing service for tourists as Fonda's Tom Skelton, having returned home (liken to young hippie prodigal sons ala Michael Douglas in HAIL HERO! and Michael Sarrazin in SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION), with a built-in experience at the job, has... while hanging out with lackadaisical girlfriend Margot Kidder and wedged between a bickering, eccentric father overplayed by Burgess Meredith... some time on the water, which is all he might have left: 92 IN THE SHADE epitomizes the Renaissance 1970's era when directors could turn out little films that only needed to make complete sense to their creators, letting the audience figure out the reality of the characters, or not. "Just go with it" has always been a drug-culture catchphrase, and in these kinda flicks, it's sound advice.  

A bitter Warren Oates, facing Fonda, locked up in SHADE Score: ***1/2
Some of the cast, like William Hickey as Fonda's "Uncle", Sylvia Miles as his father's lover and Elizabeth Ashley as Stanton's baton-twirling, money-spending wife are a bit intrusive to the otherwise laidback yet meticulous flow, and at one point a confusing time-shift occurs without a needed dissolve, and often there are too many back-to-back conversations with Fonda and the same people while his romance with Margot Kidder merely fills time between more important matters: Like the dire conversations Fonda has with Warren Oates's tragic, snaky Nichol Dance, erasing some of the superfluous chatter in-between: One knows the score while the other patiently waits – this could be said of either. And, to use a time-worn phrase, "They sure don't make 'em like this" – most likely, even back then, 92 IN THE SHADE must've stood out (in whatever random theaters it happened to be played): a more unique and gently disturbing vehicle you won't experience – a film that doesn't really try to embody anything but life, and existence; breathing, and perhaps... even... dying...

Poster Artwork YEAR: 1975
RACE WITH THE DEVIL: They'd done their arthouse Anti-Western (up next) and the bizarre Sunlit Neo Noir was about to be selectively released – now it was time for a mainstream, drive-in action flick, yet this is anything but a sell-out: RACE is undoubtedly the greatest rural occult chase film concerning two couples in an RV ever made, and, after rolling along into a lethal American South in EASY RIDER and driving madly from Vic Morrow in DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, the chase sub-genre was right up Fonda's rip-roaring alley – and there are dirt-bikes to boot!

Harvey Keitel clone on Steel Guitar
Fonda and Oates as Roger and Frank own a motorcycle shop: Learning from a seven minute pre-road prelude, Frank does the in-house business while Frank tests the goods on a noisy track. This is the kind of 'good life' that doesn't seem to need a vacation from, giving a touch of Noir-Horror being that the initial dusty off-road taken in Frank's brand new RV "boat" – destination Aspen, Colorado – is the wrong choice: shortcuts always lead to game-changing danger and, long story short, during their first night of drinking after riding off the dusk, the boys are outside, heavily buzzed and reposeful, while inside the vehicle, their wives... Warren's played by MASH actress Loretta Swit and the younger, bluer/wider-eyed  DARK SHADOWS starlet Lara Parker belonging to Peter, share a wonderfully spontaneous moment. "Alcohol doesn't freeze," Swit's Alice replies after Parker's Kelly worries about how long their men have been outside: Followed by a knowing smile on both actresses (despite, according to one of them, not getting along on the set): it's like they've been with these fellas forever...

Another Supercool KEY VHS
But that's enough of the cozy fun stuff. What happens next literally ignites the rest of the picture: The boys witness a knife-wielding female sacrifice under a gnarled, burning tree in the near-distance, and the real chase begins after a deliberately nowhere investigation aided by the town's sheriff, played by edgy Sam Peckinpah regular R.G. Armstrong, in a surprisingly subdued role: at least on the surface.
 
The Devil Score: ****
Directed by Jack Starrett, who had the built-in chops to make this action vehicle really move, surprisingly enough, the most effective scenes are pockets of downtime between the screeching highway bedlam...

The most important scenes take place at an RV park with a public swimming pool and then, a nearby shit-kicker bar where it's apparent the ROSEMARY of this particular BABY is Lara Parker (ironically, they're invited out by a tall local RV hick who played Satan himself in the Roman Polanski/Mia Farrow classic): the deranged assortment of otherwise tacky hicks have evil-eyes in her particular direction: from old men to old ladies to a steel guitar player resembling Harvey Keitel, she seems to be the one who matters, deep down...

"The Laundry's almost done, Hot Lips." Swit & Parker
The eventual chase is filmed with chaotic perfection, and it's not just a long road tedious with smashups – every ten minutes or so holds a new problem to rid of, from a determined hick grabbed onto the vehicle to a snake planted inside, to the token cherished pet in doomed peril: Sadly, whatever it is Parker had (besides beauty) that drew the cult in isn't ever established, and nothing gets deeper when, after the midway point, RACE practically becomes Peter Fonda's sole ride, each obstacle providing an action-hero response while Oates reacts with heated fever, driving steady through the nightmare with the screaming wives and, while surely not the deepest of the Fonda/Oates trilogy, this is a perfect vehicle for anyone not into the surreal arthouse value of the two super-low-budget bookends – yet there's enough originality and suspense that, through a violin stoked, stock-horror music soundtrack and unpredictable high octane thrills, this fast-paced DEVIL is more than your typical GRAND THEFT HOTTO or SMOKEY & THE BEELZEBUB.

Oates with Fonda in HIRED HAND Year: 1971
THE HIRED HAND: It's 1971, and the new decade doesn't quite realize it's not the 1960's, although in time-period pieces, only the style of film-making is apparent, and the sporadically-psychedelic THE HIRED HAND kicked off what unintentionally became the Peter Fonda and Warren Oates's trilogy: The first twenty minutes takes some patience to initially survive this counter-culture "Eastern Western," an existential independent on the heels of EASY RIDER and directed by Fonda himself...

Foreign Poster
While not as smooth behind the camera as Dennis Hopper was for RIDER and even the catastrophic, grainy glory of THE LAST MOVIE, Fonda relies more on "trippy" cascading shots of a river, and a handful of overly artistic dissolves into symbolic juxtapositions rather than moving the pace forward for the story's sake – and yet, despite the rudimentary self indulgence, awkwardly cut like a student film, this HAND soon turns into something pretty great...

Peter Fonda, Warren  Oates & Robert Pratt
Opening with Fonda, Warren Oates and the film's Achilles Heel in young TV-cameo actor, Robert Pratt as Dan, with juvenile line delivery more befitting an episode of ROOM 222 than a cowpuncher in the 1800s: A shame since, being the youngest of three wayward, lost souls, he alone wields an important youthful firebrand element. Instead, you might just hope he... goes away, quickly: And doom is predictable as the trio ride into a sliver of town that includes an inclined path harboring a row of dilapidated shanties, a makeshift saloon and deserted cabin where Fonda's Harry and Oates's Arch had been before: Sans the visual EASY RIDER explosive vision in the New Orleans whorehouse, Fonda's Harry has a really bad, ominous feeling since they'd been there before, when times weren't good... and back then they were without the kid to take care of.

Peter Fonda looking in before one of a few gunfights
Our villain is oddball character-actor Severn Darden, who appeared in Hopper's competing (and ultimately losing) LAST MOVIE – usually a mad-scientist type and here he's a woman-beating lowlife backed by much tougher looking fellas...

Although he isn't all that bad: Darden's McVey does the film a wonderful gun-blasting favor – soon we're down to two real men who matter. And then a character who steals the movie by going completely underneath enters with hardened, edgy finesse... if anyone would have been nominated for an Oscar, it'd surely be...

Fonda aims and waits
Future HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and ANIMAL HOUSE actress Verna Bloom as Fonda's wife, who's around thirty-five, and, ten years older than Fonda and with a young daughter, she's a stubborn and determined homesteader that takes her man back in – reluctantly. Fonda's Harry is tired of riding after camping out on the hard ground, especially following their violent run-in – which was soon met with hands-on/feet-crippling vengeance that you know will be revisited and repaid... Adding a peripheral sense of doom throughout, even felt within the main location – the house that faces a barn, and now, Harry has a place to sleep, but not with Bloom's Hannah...

Verna Bloom in THE HIRED HAND Score: ****
Like EASY RIDER could have been titled EASY RIDERS, plural, given Fonda's scruffy equally-important sidekick, the same goes here as he and Arch (Oates) sleep on cots in the barn, acting as HIRED HANDS. Meanwhile, Bloom, who gives the most naturally contained performance befitting the film as a whole, blends in like dusty camouflage to the pallid surroundings, waiting with a firm yet slowly fledgling countenance that embodies sturdy impatience and faithful, desperately hopeless longing...

The swing-ax and the reaper... symbolic perhaps
Meanwhile, scenes with Fonda and Oates toiling beneath a heavy sun are put-together in creative montage, progressed from the contrived gimmicky patchwork during the first act since now, something's really happening, and what's established in their friendship is tattered when one chooses (following an important conversation) to leave – so the other can be a husband: Never has a film taken such a meaningful insight into the similarities of friendship and marriage. While this is not a full-blown gun-toting Western, there's a finale that should quench what more conventional Western fans will thirst for – if they make it all the way through. And, in closing, what connects THE HIRED HAND, RACE WITH THE DEVIL and 92 IN THE SHADE is a single choice, making each film wind up, basically, in the same fashion but with completely different results: that we're not always around to experience. That's life, isn't it?
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