HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, 1973
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis
A gunfighting stranger comes to the small settlement of Lago and is hired to bring the townsfolk together in an attempt to hold off three outlaws who are on their way.
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Clint Eastwood’s admiration for the western genre is largely seen in High Plains Drifter, a film he directed which blends the traditional western tale with a hint of the supernatural. It’s a unique twist that adds a new outlook to the popular western mythology. Those familiar Sergio Leonie can see traces of the veteran directors influence expressed in many of the shots, ideas, and cinematography in High Plains Drifter, however, Eastwood uses his own imagination of the western genre and creates a distinct film that showcases his talents as a director.
A Stranger arrives in a small town, Lago, where the townspeople, fearful of the outlaws heading to town, are in need of a leader and hero. The town itself is desolate, the inahibtants are weary of the any stranger coming to town, and with the arrival of Eastwood, everyone is on guard. While getting a shave, three of the local bullies decide to taunt the stranger, at the cost of their lives. He kills all three in one sitting.
Keeping with the motif of Eastwood’s western characters, this gunfighter has no name. All of his western films with the exception of the Outlaw Josey Wales, he plays characters that have a mysterious and an unknown name, even at times appearing as if the character never knew or forgot it at some point. The film has all the makings of the classic western: a small town, an ineffective lawman, local bullies, a stranger appears, a damsel in need of some lovin’, and looming threat making its way to town.
But there’s an underlying supernatural aspect that lingers in the background and gives the film a whole take of the western mythology. It comes rooted in the past of the gunfighter whose history remains unknown but a few flashbacks give a general, or rather, vague idea of the Stranger. His skill as a gunman doesn’t go unnoticed. After taking out the three men, the town decides to hire him as their local enforcer to combat the oncoming threat, much to his indifference. To get him to stay, they bribe him, allowing full access to their town free of charge.
No one can play the lone ranger like Eastwood. His are by nature good, however, their hard exterior and indifferent attitude make them something of an oddity and outcast to others. People look at the Stranger or the Man with No Name and are immediately on guard, or feel threatened. His subtle gestures, squinty eyes, swagger, and cigar smoking habit have become synonymous with Eastwood, the same way the tough, all American hero was with John Wayne, the original loner.
The cinematography is just right for a western. Wide shots of the open land, hills rising in the background, and a beautiful yet haunting shot of the town, appearing ghostlike, are all well captured echoing the glory days of John Ford or Sergio Leonie. In keeping with the latter’s style, Eastwood also uses music that sound familiar to Ennio Morricone, creating a haunting soundtrack that works perfectly with the supernatural theme. There’s something unnatural or otherworldly about the Stranger, and the music evokes that idea.
High Plains Drifter is pretty graphic for a western. There is an image of the former Sheriff getting beaten to death with whips by the outlaws working their way to town. But despite the violent nature of the film, what works well is the story itself. The people in town share a secret, one that they’re not willing to share with the Stranger. Eventually they begin to resent him, and their concern about their secret getting out along with his everything my way mentality, leads them to try and knock him off. That gunfight in particular, along with the final battle at the end, makes for some entertaining and exhilarating action.
While High Plains Drifter may not be the best western, it certainly deserves a spot on the list as one of the best. This was the first western that Eastwood directed, and his approach to involve a supernatural theme sets it apart from other classics of the same genre. It’s an excellent film with an interesting twist; High Plains Drifter is certainly worth a watch, particularly for those who admire a great western.