Friday, 16 March 2012

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Country: USA

In the baking heat of the Spanish countryside Clint Eastwood performed his duties as an actor in three spaghetti westerns that had little expectation attached to them; somehow amid the chaos of a Sergio Leone shoot Mr. Eastwood studied the Italian’s technique, absorbed the stylisations, admired the fiery filmmakers work ethic, and filed away the daily lessons he was exposed too for future reference. Eastwood was clearly determined to get more of out his three European vacations than just payment. It’s almost as if Eastwood knew that these formative experiences would be crucial in his later career. But Eastwood was not content with merely following the Sergio Leone curriculum of filmmaking, especially when the opportunity arose later in his career to work with Don Siegel. If Leone’s influence on Eastwood was visual and stylistic, then Siegel’s lay in the simplification of narrative; in a minimalist attitude to the presentation of familiar generic material. Eastwood’s first outing as a director was the atypical and unusual Play Misty for Me (1971); an intense psychological thriller in which Eastwood made his first attempt to subvert audience expectations built on his image as a tough guy action hero. His second film was High Plains Drifter, and it was his first western. It is a more instructive and intriguing film, and was his first clear opportunity to celebrate his influences and develop his own unique outlook.

High Plains Drifter has three key qualities that help to differentiate it from other westerns of the time. The first is the inspirational decision to situate the mining town of Lago on the shores of Lake Mono in California, and to use the stifling scrubland and arid desert landscape of the Sierra Nevada’s. The second was Eastwood’s decision, against the advice of Universal Pictures, to construct the town of Lago from scratch. The film is given an added sense of verisimlitude thanks to the timber framed three dimensional buildings, and this works in stark relief to the third important quality of the film; the incursion of the supernatural into the narrative. I won’t dwell too much on the supernatural qualities inherent to the film, because Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay purposefully maintains a sense of vague ambiguity. The important thing is the way in which an atmosphere of otherworldliness interacts with the dust, sweat, and dirt of the western genre, and helps to foster the revisionist qualities of the movie. A lot of writing on High Plains Drifter makes the error of suggesting that The Stranger (Clint Eastwood) is merely Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ recycled and slightly re-interpreted. In my view the hazy indistinctness of The Stranger makes him an altogether more troublesome and problematic proposition. One thing that was made abundantly clear in the Leone movies was motivation; here we are left guessing until the end, and even then the film isn’t totally clear. The Stranger completely lacks the sardonic twinkle of ‘The Man with No Name’, he lacks the emotional core; in short The Stranger is almost a complete psychopath.

Our first indication of his supernatural skill comes in a barber shop, where he effortlessly eliminates three salty looking dudes. This is a brilliant scene made even more impressive by Eastwood’s decision to use mirrors. But the following scene undermines his uncanny skills with a pistol; he indulges in a base act of rape. If it is The Stranger’s intention to punish the townspeople he miscalculates here; the victim of the violation clearly loves every second of it. It isn’t long before The Stranger has been hired as a gunfighter to defend the town against three men wronged by the Lago Mining Company. The company itself is riddled with corruption and pettiness; the mean avariciousness has bled down into the very fabric of the town, into the very timber of the buildings…what the town needs is a lick of paint! A crack of a whip, a fractured dream in which a man is brutally bullwhipped to death while the townsfolk watch on, all recurrent images which offer hints and clues as to the purpose of this gun toting demon. It gives the film a supreme sense of gothic paranoia which is taken to a symbolic extreme with the decision to paint the town red and rename it hell.

Some might argue that the symbolism employed is a little heavy handed, but there is a wonderfully simplistic and naïve nature to High Plains Drifter that makes it seem entirely appropriate. It works extremely well with Eastwood’s style of direction, which even here in its infancy, is as unobtrusive as to be barely noticeable. One weakness perhaps is the elaborate nature of the citizen’s punishment. The film spends half its running time hitting guilty characters where it hurts, only to have them slaughtered in a swift climax. But without it the film would lack the dark irony at its heart. The screenplay succeeds admirably in setting out a town’s guilty conscious. I did think the length and multitude of the flashbacks was unnecessary, but each one either implicates a different character, or in the case of Mordecai (Billy Curtis) exonerates one. The revisionism of High Plains Drifter lies in it attitude to the morality of the western. This is a strong attack on traditional conceptions of heroism, and not a single character emerges with even the slightest degree of nobility. The film is a both a subversion of traditional western values and a subversion of expectations and generic convention. It’s an extremely ambitious undertaking for a second film; first and foremost Eastwood celebrates his influences, he’s only too happy to credit the men that helped form his filmmaking vision. But the true lasting appeal of High Plains Drifter lies in its ingenious melding of the supernatural, gothic melodramatics, the horror mystery, and the revisionist impulse that united the western genre in the 1970’s.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Bravo, my friend. When I saw that there were no comments shortly after you posted this superb review on Friday, I was surprised. When I sat to read it just now, I was more flummoxed than ever, even a bit peeved, to see that there were still no comments. No matter, my friend, as your work here reaches to new hights, and delves deeper than just the easy, run of the mill take more often attributed to this film: that The Stranger is a rehash of the Man With No Name. Bah! Take one look at the opening of this one, the ULTRA LONG SHOT of The Stranger materializing out on the desert scrub, it's over slow tone, not to mention the melodic, meandering score, and you get right off the bat that this is a indeed different kind of western altogether. What's more, it's a singular piece, one that stands well apart from the Dollars Trilogy, though, I'd say you're spot on about the influence Leone's west, not to mention the solid narrative based mechanics of Siegel had on a young(er) Clint. Talk about your fucking masters class!

    This is indeed one of my favorite reviews of yours, my friend, a really outstanding piece. I wish to discuss it more in greater detail, but for now, it's enough for me to say, that I wouldn't be concerned at all that you have yet to receive greater kudos for the write-up. If anything, I'd see it as a badge of honor. So be it. It's about the work. Clint would be pleased. And other future generations of readers will, too. Again, outstanding work, Sir. Outstanding indeed.


    Oh, and I like that you chose to contextualize the film (as you always do, which is one of the many reasons I read you) and more or less ignore the little things... only this time, you made a grave mistake, and forgot the little people; more "person," I suppose. I've always loved The Stranger's half-pint deputy, me! In fact, when I was young, I wanted to have one for myself! Just a little fellow to light my cigarillos and such, preferably right after I stomped the crap out of some dirty banker or intimidated some weaselly barber or roughly stuck it to some bar room tramp!

  2. Good to hear from you Greg! I think I've said this before in a previous comment but certain things on The Celluloid Highway go down about as well as a case of syphillis. All of the American westerns I've reviewed in the past perform below average in terms of page views and comments. This sits in stark contrast to reviews of Euro-Westerns which always seem to do quite well. I think I've painted myself into a corner with the type of films I've reviewed; There just doesn't seem to be much of an appetite in my readership for traditional or revisionist US westerns. However that won't stop me writing about them.

    But many thanks for the praise, it's always appreciated, and indeed inspires me to continue. I think this film both highlights Clint's influences and indicates his own style and outlook...but a lot of credit must also go to Ernest Tidyman's screenplay making a total commitment to a dark gothic narrative the like of which was hinted at in earlier Euro-Westerns. If you get the chance check out AND GOD SAID TO CAIN for an example of a Euro-Western which functions more as a horror film and features a rare good guy role for Klaus Kinski.

    Further suggestions for future reviews most welcome :-)

  3. Oh and many thanks for mentioning the music, I forget to highlight this in the review!

  4. Just watched TEXAS, ADIOS. As soon as the last framed rolled, I poured myself a fresh glass of beer, dashed to the computer and bought a copy via Amazon. A very rare example of a "classic" Euro-western, meaning: a Euro-production that very much looks and feels like a traditional American Western, even those of the revisionist varietal.

    Oh, and the first time I ever saw HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, it was the opening shot coupled with the opening score that mesmerized me. I especially liked the flashbacks, too; very "Euro" those flashbacks where is presentation, I thought!

  5. Yeah TEXAS, ADIOS is a solid western. Also of interest from the same period is Lucio Fulci's MASSACRE TIME, which also stars Franco Nero :-)

  6. This is a really terrific review, Shaun - which, I believe, recognises the film for what it is rather than what others have assumed it to be in the past.

    I've always feel that 'High Plains Drifter' is a seminal, if not prototypical, slasher film - albeit with an obvious weight to it that far exceeds the later stalk 'n slash fodder (a genre that observed minimalism due to cinematic incompetence rather than as a result of legitimate aesthetic choice). I won't waffle on about that here, but suffice to say your review highlighted the very elements that have always attracted me to the film.

    And I for one would love to read your take on any 'Western' from any era, Shaun. Readership/comments/views be damned: go travel wherever your kino eye cares to wander. :)

  7. Many thanks Jonny, your kind words are very much appreciated! I think you're right to suggest a link between HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and the slasher film. I mentioned it in an earlier comment but the Margeriti Euro-Western AND GOD SAID TO CAIN reminded me a lot of a prototype slasher film as well. What makes HIGH PLAINS so unusual is that Clint Eastwood is dabbling in these areas. This is is the nearest Eastwood came to the horror genre, and that in itself is an exceptional event.


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