If tempted to create a list of good actors who turned into great directors, Peter Fonda's name would hover pretty close to the top. Pretty much long-forgotten as a character behind the camera, he directed three films from 1971-1979, two of which are distinct and quite good. His directorial debut, "The Hired Hand" released in 1971, stands as one of the decade's best westerns. Straying far from the macho swagger of the late 60's efforts (Leone, Peckinpah), Fonda opts for a more contemplative, almost sensitive, tone. Not exactly a "revisionist" film in the common sense, it's a highly prescient film in the way it ushers in the wave of 70's westerns- films that diametrically oppose their forefathers by wallowing in lush vistas, slow dissolves and iconic images of green landscapes and orange skies (not a bad thing, by any means). In "The Hired Hand", Fonda prefers darkened silhouettes against expansive sunsets, and its a melodic mood ignited in the film's opening minutes as the camera slowly focuses on the men next to a rushing river. Traveling with his friend, Arch (Warren Oates, never better), Harry (Fonda) begins to yearn for the wife and child he left behind seven years ago. After meeting horse thieves and having a young riding partner killed by them, Arch and Harry retreat to the estranged family and wife (played by Verna Bloom). But the idyllic setting of home life is soon disrupted when Arch is kidnapped on the way to California, drawing Harry back into his old lifestyle. The plot mechanisms have to kick in, of course. This IS a western after all. But "The Hired Hand" is so good when it's not rushing for the obligatory gunfight. Being an actor, Fonda certainly has an affinity for reaction and emotions on-screen. What's most amazing about "The Hired Hand" is that he's able to blend everything into a moving and cohesive experience. Not only is the acting A-grade, but the technical prowess (slow tracking shots by Vilmos Zsigmond, hypnotic dissolves and freeze frames) on display are just as stunning. This is a hell of a debut.
With his sophomore film, Fonda made an abrupt about-face. In 1974, Fonda released "The Idaho Transfer", a weirdly disturbing but completely enthralling science-fiction tale about a group of college aged 'scientists' who travel ahead into the future. They find a desolate wasteland, destroyed by some type of ecological disaster. Their mission is to identify what type of disaster it was and fix it if possible. But after sabotage on the time machine, the group is stranded in the future. By it's brief plot description, "The Idaho Transfer" seems like a perfect ft for 70's cheese, but it's much more than that. "The Idaho Transfer" is controlled in its pacing, simple in its mise-en-scene and supportive of its characters. What Fonda lacks in budget, he makes up for in unnerving long takes and silence. One scene finds two of the scientists approaching an abandoned train. As the male scientist walks up to the train and begins opening its doors, a patient lateral pan follows his legs on the other side of the train as he uncovers the horrors inside. When he returns to the female scientist, he describes seeing bodies. It's a telling scene, both in how Fonda chooses to film it and how subtle the macabre details of the apocalypse are doled out. Furthermore, very few structures are observed in the wasteland, but the crumbled ruins that are seen in conjunction with the cracked, red landscape (filmed in Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho) relay a deep sense of decay and destruction. For Fonda, less is definitely more. And while there's still an aire of hippie attitude in the way the characters interact and how laid-back Fonda envisions his survivors of the future, "The Idaho Transfer" manages to instill a strong vision of the future with a relatively cool twist ending.
Perhaps the best attribute of Fonda as a filmmaker is his refusal to follow the prevailing culture of the era. Instead of mimicking the maniacal footsteps of fellow actor/filmmaker Dennis Hopper who created sprawling, out of control films with heavy themes like "The Last Movie" and "Out of the Blue", Fonda's films are restrained and balanced. And while certain circles do recognize the avant garde intent of the two Hopper films mentioned, time has been (unfortunately) less appreciative of Fonda's career behind the camera. In the case of "The Hired hand", it took the work of Martin Scorsese to begin restoration on the film (and wow does the DVD look terrific). In 1979, Fonda did release a film titled "Wanda Nevada" starring a young Brooke Shields, but critical favor and availability of the title has been less kind than "The Hired Hand" and "Idaho Transfer". Both readily available on video, it's time that Fonda receives his due as an actor AND director.