High Plains Drifter (1973)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Written by: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis
I was introduced to High Plains Drifter when it was described to me by a professor in film school as “the movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it Hell.” While this curt description leaves out some of the nuance of the plot, it is, at its essence, what the film is about. Though we didn’t screen High Plains Drifter in the Film Westerns class during which it was first mentioned to me, the attitude of that particular professor did a great deal to help form my own viewpoints on movies, and watching this particular film always reminds me of him. Prof. Best was as likely to recommend a Kaiju movie as he was Kurosawa, and was more interested in comics than he was in literary classics. His open-minded approach to movies and to art helped to open up my own thinking on what could or should be considered valid as a subject of academic study. If Prof. Best could champion Star Trek, Godzilla, and anime, then why shouldn’t I seek to explore the artistry in whatever text I might see fit. Breaking out of the ivory tower mentality of academia was freeing, but it was also a development that likely pushed me away from continuing to pursue my education beyond my undergraduate studies. When I entered into a graduate program at Pitt, I found that the canonization and attention to classical theory completely turned me off, and I longed for the freedom that I had found studying under Prof. Best. I’m always reminded of him when I watch High Plains Drifter, not just because he was the person who first introduced me to it, but also because it is typical of the type of B-movie that he would have found artistically valid and criminally under-considered.
High Plains Drifter opens with a lone stranger (Eastwood) riding into the mining town of Lago. Upon his arrival, The Stranger is warned by the town’s saloon keeper that range types such as himself don’t often stop in Lago, finding the town to move too quickly for them. He insinuates that The Stranger ought to keep moving, and a trio of rough types in the saloon follow him across the street to the town barber shop, where they menace The Stranger. He takes the three by surprise, spinning out of the barber’s chair with his pistol drawn, and quickly dispatches of the trio. After having witnessed his lethal capacity, the town’s sheriff offers The Stranger the job previously held by the three roughriders that he killed, defending Lago from Stacy Bridges (Lewis) and his gang of outlaws who previously menaced the town and who are soon set to be released from prison. The Stranger learns that the town’s previous marshal was whipped to death in the street by the Bridges gang, and he is plagued by dreams of the marshal’s torture. The Stranger reluctantly accepts the job of defending the town, with the caveat that if he protects the town that the townsfolk must give him anything he wants. He takes full advantage, buying rounds for the whole bar at the saloon, loading up on supplies at the town store, and appointing Mordecai (Curtis), a dwarf, to the position of sheriff and mayor of Lago. The Stranger begins to devise a plan and instruct the townsfolk on how to defend themselves from Bridges’s gang. The Stranger’s plan involves painting the town red and staging a welcoming party for the gang, during which the townsfolk will ambush them. However, when Bridges and his outlaws are about to arrive in Lago, The Stranger rides off, leaving the townsfolk to fend for themselves, and the gang overruns the town and begins to burn it down. The Stranger returns to the town, emerging from the flames, to stalk and murder the Bridges gang. The next day, The Stranger rides out of town as Mordecai is engraving the previously unmarked grave of the murdered marshal.
That plot summary of High Plains Drifter is a bit more involved than the one-sentence summary that had first piqued my curiosity about the movie, but its essence can really be boiled down into the fact that it is a movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it “Hell.” When I eventually got around to seeing the movie sometime in my early 20s, I found the pervasive strangeness and otherworldly tone of that abstract but powerfully evocative summary informed the film completely. High Plains Drifter seems equally influenced by Eastwood’s directorial mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, and by Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The film initially seems to hew close to the blueprint that Leone and Eastwood had established in the “Dollars” trilogy, but it quickly adopts a rather unsettling tone and it contains supernatural elements that are rare in the Western genre. It contains a level of violence, gore, and nihilism that would have been thought unseemly for the All-American film genre just five years prior. This is a revisionist Western, through and through, and it establishes Eastwood as a director who would continue to be interested in exploring and shifting the boundaries of the Western genre. Though it’s a bit of an uneven effort, High Plains Drifter is only Eastwood’s second feature in the director’s chair, and it deserves special commendation as a wholly unique vision of the West and of the Western film.
High Plains Drifter isn’t a great movie; in fact, I think many people would say that it isn’t even a very good movie. It doesn’t really feature any standout performances, as Eastwood is essentially reprising his Man With No Name role, and the rest of the cast suffers from sorely lacking character development. These are stock Western characters, meant more to stand in for types than to differentiate themselves from one another. The movie’s production value is also fairly low, although its sets are decently impressive, featuring full buildings rather than false fronts, which gives the town of Lago some sense of depth. Rewatching High Plains Drifter, I was struck by the sense that some of the scenes weren’t finished, featuring abrupt endings, seeming extraneous to the plot, or just not quite matching up with the tone of the rest of the film. However, I still find this to be an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. While it isn’t perfect, High Plains Drifter nails the right balance of pulp, action, and horror, even peppering in moments of levity. It’s schlocky and campy, but I’ve always found something intriguing about Eastwood’s injection of the supernatural into a Western revenge story. It’s a fresh take on the Western and one that I’m pretty happy to explore whenever the mood strikes me. For a movie that was introduced to me in such an inauspicious way, it’s one that has become a go-to Western, despite its obvious flaws.
I don’t know if High Plains Drifter is underseen, or if I just don’t know that many people who like Westerns, generally, but I think that it’s a really fun movie that deserves a little more attention. It isn’t as iconic or groundbreaking as Eastwood’s work with Leone in the 1960s, or as paradigm shifting as something like The Wild Bunch, but it continues the revisionist ideas of the West that those films started to explore. It’s a refutation of the idyllic vision of American society in the Old West, and despite its supernatural overtones, it’s a position that rings true to me as a viewer. Watching this movie and High Noon in succession for this project, I was struck by the honesty that the townsfolk of Lago who would stand by and watch their Marshal whipped to death in the street are a natural extension of the cowardly townsfolk of Hadleyville who abandoned Marshal Kane, leaving him to face his fate alone. The major difference is that in a classic Western such as High Noon, the basic decency and virtue of the hero is assumed, whereas in Eastwood’s savage vision of the West, decency has been stripped away in favor of vengeance. I think it’s also interesting that both of these films drew the ire of none other than John Wayne, who posited that they both misrepresented the good, honest people of the Old West. I don’t bring that up to paint Eastwood as some sort of progressive in contrast to the virulent, reactionary Wayne. I think that Eastwood is presenting the same sort of paranoid, cut-throat world view that was on display in Dirty Harry, but something about the transposition to the Western setting makes it easier for me to stomach as a viewer in 2018. There are a couple of other Eastwood films that I’ll be writing about for this project, and I’m sure that my relationship and consideration of him as an actor, star persona, and director won’t get any less complicated, but I think that High Plains Drifter is a movie of his that I can pretty wholeheartedly endorse. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a really fun Western that inverts many conventions and traditions of the genre, and it offers enough stylistic variance to please fans of other genres, as well.