High Plains Drifter (1973)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Ernest Tidyman
Clint Eastwood, quite simply, is a legend in Hollywood. He has recently celebrated his EIGHTIETH birthday and is still producing outstanding movies (as can be seen by 2008’s under-appreciated by the Academy Awards Gran Torino). His movies are a laundry list of great films: from Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and the Dirty Harry series to Eastwood’s own directorial efforts in Million Dollar Baby, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. Nearly every one of his movies are good-to-great and many deserve mention in the 1001 Movies You Must See book. Today, I take a look at the second movie Eastwood directed (and one not mentioned among his best): the western High Plains Drifter.
As the film opens, we see a man who will only be known as The Stranger (Eastwood) riding into the town of Lago. He keeps his eyes forward, never looking at the gawking community. It’s only when he stops at the saloon where he begins to speak and also runs afoul of three local gunfighters. After an attempted stop at the barbershop, he shoots the the gunfighters dead and then proceeds to rape a loudmouth woman (Bloom) who was vying for his attention. He then takes a room in the hotel for his own and goes to sleep. No, The Stranger is obviously not a nice person at all.
We come to find out that Lago is a mining town. Their sheriff is incompetent, but is merely a replacement after the previous one was whipped to death by three men the mining company hired to protect the town. They were sent to prison for a year and as luck would have it, they would be returning shortly. With nowhere else to turn, the town hires The Stranger to help protect them (granting him anything he wants in town). He devises a plan and begins to train the townsfolk, all while rubbing some the wrong way as he takes what and whoever he wants.
That’s essentially the plot. Very cut and dry, right? Wrong. While the plot is simplistic, the people who occupy the world are not. Of all the people we meet, there are only two decent human beings in town. The first is the midget (Billy Curtis) that acts as a punching bag until The Stranger shows up and promptly makes him mayor and sheriff of Lago. The second is the wife of the hotel owner (Hill) who was the only one to even try to save the previous sheriff and seems especially cold to The Stranger. However, there may be good reason for that.
As stated before, The Stranger is not a good person nor does he try to be (his sticking up for the midget Mordecai aside). That said, he’s a truly fascinating character. We never find out what his name is nor do we know who/what he is. There are several theories for who he is. First one is that he’s the brother of the sheriff that was brutally murdered. Second is that he’s the sheriff himself. I don’t buy this one as no one in town recognizes him (you can argue that the hotel owner’s wife does, though). The third theory, and the one I go with, is that he’s the embodied spirit of the sheriff. He’s brutal to the townsfolk because no one tried to help him as he was being whipped. He lives in purgatory until he can enact his revenge on all of those who wronged him. It is left open for interpretation, though, so don’t let my opinion sway you.
This being Eastwood’s second directorial effort, it’s interesting to see that he always had an eye for storytelling. It’s the small things that Eastwood notices that makes his films so interesting and High Plains Drifter is no different. We can easily tell that he learned from his days working for Leone in his spaghetti westerns. There also seems to be a bit of Akira Kurosawa influence as the feel of the movie seems to recall Yojimbo. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the score by Dee Barton. It’s such a spooky score that helps along the supernatural feel that the film has (and a certain aspect may have influenced Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight).
Bottom Line: While starting off a bit slow, High Plains Drifter ends with a bang. With solid acting and a good eye for timing, Eastwood’s early effort here was a sign of things to come. When the story comes together at the end, one can’t help but to smile at the cleverness of it all. If nothing else, The Stranger belongs in the pantheon of the great characters Eastwood has played over the years.