AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A stranger on horseback rides into the mining town of Lago, shoots three gun-toting men who taunt him, then rapes a woman who deliberately bumps into him and who also taunts him. Renting a room at the hotel, he dreams about a man being brutally whipped while people just watch and don’t try to come to his aid. Meanwhile three killers are released from jail and head straight for Lago. They killed the town marshall but the townsfolk double-crossed them, so they are now seeking vengeance. As he’s just killed the three mercenaries hired to protect them, the townsmen decide to hire the Stranger to help, but he demands free reign to do what he wants in return….
This film remains probably the best to mix the horror film and the western [though I remain one of the few who still dream of an uncut version of Shadow Of Chikara on Blu-ray or DVD]. It may be far more of a western than a horror, and is usually categorised as a western, but it certainly has its dark and macabre aspects, while its supernaturally tinged story of revenge is one where both genres are able to neatly intersect rather than have aspects of one crudely drafted onto another. I don’t think it matches Clint Eastwood’s Sergio Leone-directed films which had come before, while Eastwood as director would make two westerns [The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven] later on which were also superior. High Plains Drifter is still a very strong and interesting picture though: atmospheric, amusing, morally ambiguous and even controversial, while the man himself seems to be having a whale of a time riffing on his Man With No Name persona. Though I may not have been old enough legally to actually watch many of them, I became a huge fan of Clint from quite an early age, and I remember this film particularly as one where I just wanted to be the guy, he was just so cool on-screen!
High Plains Drifter came just after another Eastwood western, but Joe Kidd, despite being the usual box office success, hadn’t come off too well, so Eastwood decided to direct [for the second time, the first being Play Misty For Me] his next one. Ernest Tidyman’s nine-page treatment was inspired by reports of the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, where people ignored the killing of a young woman in New York in 1964. It may also have had High Noon as a starting point, asking what would have happened if Gary Cooper’s character had been killed at the end. His script got an un-credited rewrite by Dean Riesner, screenwriter of other Eastwood projects, and somewhere along the way the Stranger was changed from being the dead marshall’s brother to his ghost. Though Universal wanted Eastwood to shoot the feature on their own back lot, Eastwood opted instead to film on location and had an entire town built on the shores of Mono Lake for the project which included complete, rather than partial, buildings so Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on the site. Shot in sequence, the film was one of Eastwood’s biggest hits yet, though John Wayne wrote Eastwood an angry letter saying: “That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country”. Eastwood responded by asking Wayne if he would collaborate with him on a film, but Wayne refused. Interestingly, versions released in some European countries retained the original script’s idea of the Stranger being the marshall’s brother in the dubbing, though this would have made other things in the film make little sense!
This is clearly the most Leone-influenced of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, especially during the wordless opening six minutes where we witness the Stranger, who appears eerily out of a dust storm, slowly ride into town. Though afterwards Eastwood doesn’t stretch scenes out like Leone did, the mood and pacing remain similar, while of course we are watching a variant of the Man With No Name on-screen. Eastwood has never been more amusingly laconic, and he’s just such fun to watch in this movie as well as being far more of an anti-hero than Leone ever made him. He may be justified in shooting down three trigger-happy fools who provoke him, but he also rapes a woman who deliberately bumps into him, then taunts him. This is a very uncomfortable scene with Callie enjoying the assault after a while and even undoing the Stranger’s belt, and, her also being a promiscuous woman and all, we’re left with the suggestion that she’s ‘asking for it’. She even comes back for ‘seconds’ some scenes later. This is all appallingly sexist, and Callie’s whole character is poorly written, but in a way this fits in with the moral ambiguity of a film in which nearly everyone has a bad side.
The Stranger certainly isn’t really a ‘good guy’, even if his first two acts once given control of the town are to make a much-mocked little person as sheriff and give a huge amount of blankets to an old Native American being abused in a shop. The townspeople soon regret their decision when he turfs people out of the hotel so he can get some peace and quiet, organises a big picnic in the town square and gets the whole town painted red. This is all quite funny, and, while the Stranger every now and again shows that he’s the quickest on the draw as well as worming his way into the bed of the hotel owner’s wife [of course she initially hates him but changes her mind very quickly], the film’s way of every now and again cutting to the three killers heading for the town in a way makes the pace slacken, while there’s also little urgency concerning this part of the plot despite these bad guys being truly nasty. The supernatural element and the tale’s main gimmick are brought in quite early but it all remains a bit ambiguous. It’s certainly not explained satisfactorily, which actually works for this particular story. The person we see being whipped to death is played by Buddy Van Horn, a long-time stunt coordinator for Eastwood, and a person who looks a bit like him, but not too much.
These whipping flashbacks, with the action being watched by all the townspeople with only one of them trying to assist, are extremely brutal and have a real nightmare quality about them, aided immensely by composer Dee Barton’s employment of odd, uncanny sound effects rather than conventional scoring. The Stranger is the collective guilt of the town come back to haunt them, the painting of Lago in red symbolising the blood they have on their hands, so it doesn’t really matter if he’s a murdered man coming from beyond the grave, or an avenging angel, or the Devil, or whatever. The final scene [a scene which by the way has two tombstones which have the names of Eastwood’s two directorial mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel on them], if you think about it, actually raises more questions than it answers. Meanwhile it’s impossible to forget that only one person in the film can be considered especially ‘good’, and the only one apart from the Stranger who is allowed to get out of the Hell which Lago has been transformed into [this film works so much better if you take its story metaphorically], but even she cheats on her husband. This film really doesn’t a very nice view of humanity. We’re all sinful, and we’re all going to Hell. Of course one doesn’t want to get too heavy about all this because the film is still very entertaining, especially with Eastwood parodying his persona so much. Billy Curtis sticks out amongst the rest of the cast as Mordecai.
Eastwood’s direction is incredibly assured for only his second film, while High Plains Drifter looks stunning due to the superb cinematography of Bruce Surtees, evoking much bleak beauty out of the landscapes and making excellent use of shadows and black during the climactic scenes. Barton’s terrific score is memorably offbeat and succeeds in differentiating from Ennio Morricone. While not quite up there with Eastwood’s true masterpieces, and perhaps a bit more uncomfortable than it should be in one particular aspect [the script would sure be rather different if the film had been made even a decade later], High Plains Drifter is still quite a unique film which, like the guilt of most of its characters, sticks in the mind and won’t go away. And, while he has made several other films with slight horror elements since, I wish he had a made a real, full-blown horror movie. Well, there’s still time, as the man just seems to keep on going!