September 17, 2009

High Plains Drifter (1973)

THROUGH THE HAZE of a desert plain, a stranger (Clint Eastwood) on horseback appears in the distance. He makes his way across the plain, down a hillside, past a graveyard, and into the small lakeside desert town of Lago.

The stranger stops in Lago’s saloon for a drink, and here’s the greeting he gets:

Oh, and after the above mayhem, he proceeds to rape the insulting town tramp (Marianna Hill).

Welcome to the first 10 minutes of High Plains Drifter.

The people of Lago hire the nameless stranger to protect them from a returning trio of outlaws (led by Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis) who have a score to settle with the town. While many of the townsfolk want the stranger to protect their town, several others (who want the secrets of the town preserved) scheme to have him removed…permanently.


There are many elements that make High Plains Drifter such a powerful film. The strong script by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection, Shaft). The eerie, piercing, foreboding musical score by Dee Barton. The performances of the ensemble cast. But a large amount of the film’s success belongs to the superb direction by Eastwood.

High Plains Drifter was only Eastwood’s second film as director (and his first western), but already he was showing his skills behind the camera. In addition to a strong use of point-of-view camerawork, Eastwood fills the film with masterful shots using angles, reveals, foregrounds, backgrounds, mirrors, lighting, and shadows. He spends exactly the right amount of time with each shot; not a second is wasted on any given scene.

A thesis could be written about how Lago is an allegory for Hell. (Tidyman’s script is truly on a literary level.) Some examples:
• The stranger rides down a hillside to enter Lago (a descent into hell)
• The following passages of dialogue after the stranger demands every building in town be painted red…
o Preacher (Robert Donner): “You can’t mean the church, too!” Stranger: “I mean especially the church.”
o Bartender (Paul Brinegar): “When we get done, this place is gonna look like hell.”
o Later, after the hotel owner (Ted Hartley) declares, “200 gallons of blood-red paint…it couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago!” – we cut immediately to the stranger sleeping in bed.
• And when you see him backlit during the fiery climax, wielding his bullwhip, you’d swear the stranger is the devil himself.

Eastwood’s stranger is an antihero for the ages, and High Plains Drifter is a dark morality tale that just happens to be a western. As the story unfolds, it becomes all too clear who the stranger embodies – an “avenging devil” who’s come to collect on the sins of the town’s past.

High Plains Drifter often gets dismissed or lumped in with Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good The Bad & The Ugly) or lackluster efforts like Hang ‘em High. I admit, I was guilty of this perception until I actually watched High Plains Drifter years ago. It’s now one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. (See the others on my profile page or my reviews under the label “filmfather favorite.”)

• “Lago Averno” was the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno.
• Shortly after the film's release, Eastwood wrote to John Wayne, suggesting they make a western together. Wayne sent back an angry letter, denouncing High Plains Drifter for its violence and revisionist portrayal of the Old West. Eastwood didn’t reply back, and they never worked together.


Will your kids want to watch it?
High Plains Drifter may be a western, and kids may love cowboys, but this is one dark, R-rated western that young’ins shouldn’t see till they’re older. Many people are shot, a woman is raped, two men are whipped to death, and another is hung by a bullwhip. There are also a couple of morning-after bedroom scenes with Eastwood and a lady friend. And to top it off, a horse is shot and a little person (The Wizard of Oz’s Billy Curtis) gets punched out by a full-sized man.

Will your FilmMother like it?
The perception (correct or not) is that girls don’t like westerns. Well, I often say that High Plains Drifter is a western for people who don’t like westerns – but love a good tale of morality, revenge, and the price for covering sins of the past. Also, push the literary angle if you think that’ll play to her intellect; I’m still trying to get it to work on my English-teacher wife. (How about tonight, honey?)

Dammit, I said RED. This is clearly mauve. That’s it, I’m off the project.

High Plains Drifter
• Director: Clint Eastwood
• Screenwriter: Ernest Tidyman
• Stars: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Mitch Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis, Walter Barnes
• MPAA Rating: R

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Gemma said...

Another great review, FF. This was, and is, an awesome movie. Glad you reviewed it nailed all the things that made it great!

James (SeattleDad) said...

This is definitely one of my favorite Clint Movies. I didn't know that he directed it though.

Bob Ignizio said...

This has been a personal favorite for many years. It used to show frequently (in a cut version) on one of my local UHF stations, which is how I first saw it. I love Clint's spaghetti westerns, too, but I think this one is in a league of its own.

Kristin said...

This won't be the first time you have ever heard me say this: Not tonight, Honey.

Sorry. I couldn't resist!

Seriously, you know that I value your opinion, and the literary angle and your always well-written review are both impressive. But it's a western!

Luke said...

one of my all time favourite westerns!

Jeff Allard said...

If it's an Eastwood Western, it's great. And this is in the upper ranks of that category. As a kid I found High Plains Drifter so eerie and intense that for me, it borders on horror movie territory.

Geof said...

FF - this is one of my favorite westerns and you wrote a great review for it.

Like the Jeff above my post, I concur with my love for Eastwood westerns. Again, nice job!

joe said...

Clint Eastwood was the only guy I ever knew of that could wear a poncho and still be considered masculine..

Eric said...

High Plains Drifter is the best !! From the start you can't get out of your chair.


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