High Plains Drifter
High Plains Drifter USA, 1973. Rated R. 105 minutes.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Billy Curtis, Marianna Hill, Mitch Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Walker, Walter Barnes, Robert Donner, William O'Connell
Writers: Ernest Tidyman, Dean Riesner (uncredited)
Music: Dee Barton
Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees
Producer: Robert Daley
Director: Clint Eastwood

Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I t has been said that any story can be reduced to one of two basic plots: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes into town. It has also been said that even these two plots are the same story, only told from differing points of view. High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's second directorial effort, is that universal story in its most basic form. Simplicity, however, does not mean one-dimensionality.

It begins with a stranger riding into town: we see a scorched plateau, then a shadow in the wavy distant heat vapors. It coalesces into a silhouette of a man on horseback, galloping directly at us. When he reaches us, we follow as he makes his way toward a settlement on the edge of a broad lake. He's become a man on a journey, and we are along for the ride.

The long opening segment, in which the stranger approaches the town of Lago and slowly rides though it, continues to switch between the two points of view. The camera studies the stranger through the eyes of the townspeople. He is a mysterious, hardened, probably dangerous drifter with unknown intentions. He is the Eastwood icon, established in the Sergio Leone westerns that made Eastwood a star (A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and thoroughly deconstructed decades later in Eastwood's Unforgiven. Tangentially, the name "S. Leone" appears on one of the headstones in Lago's graveyeard–an odd way to pay tribute to the Italian director.

The camera surveys the townspeople through the eyes of the stranger, and we see them as he sees them: cowering weaklings. Wordlessly the stranger continues through town, with the horse's hooves beating in the dirt as the only soundtrack. Once he has crossed all the way through, having evaluated everyone and been evaluated by everyone, he dismounts and heads for the saloon. This, and a recurring dream of a brutal murder, is all the exposition we need. The conflict is set: the stranger versus almost everyone else, in confrontations that are as much psychological as they are physical. Only the details need to be filled in.

Sympathizing with Eastwood's antihero in High Plains Drifter is more of a challenge than in some of Eastwood's other films, because he is even less likeable than usual. The StrangerWithin minutes of arriving into town, he has killed three people without much provocation and committed rape. But just as the movie pushes us away from the stranger, it sides with him again as the camera follows him into his hotel room. Here, Eastwood shows again that he is an infinitely patient director. The camera austerely records the stranger's activities as he turns in for the night. The scene is unnecessary to develop the plot. But there is a purpose: Eastwood has locked us, the audience, in the hotel room with his antihero, obliging us to see things from his perspective by producing the impression that danger lurks outside, and letting us wonder what the townspeople might be up to. Eastwood uses this interlude to encourage us to think about what's happening, rather than just taking us on a roller coaster from one violent high to the next, and he uses it to set up the first eerie dream sequence, in which the stranger visualizes an event he could not possibly have witnessed.

While never precisely eliciting sympathy, Eastwood's nameless stranger is more palatable once it becomes clear that the whole film is a semi-biblical allegory. The townspeople hire the stranger to protect them from a band of criminals due to be released from prison in a few days. As compensation they give him carte blanche in Lago. The stranger toys with the townspeople, who must fulfill his every whim. He befriends only a midget named Mordecai (Billy Curtis), making him sheriff and mayor. The butt of the other townspeople's cruelty and jokes, Mordecai–and the Native Americans to whom the stranger shows kindness–are the meek, who, the New Testament tells us, will inherit the earth. The biblical motif becomes explicit when the stranger instructs the townspeople to repaint all Lago in red, and renames it "Hell."

Though occasionally amusing, in ways similar to A Fistful of Dollars and Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, in which tough protagonists also manipulate weaker townspeople to humorous effect, High Plains Drifter is a brooding, surprisingly artistic Western, accented by a haunting score. Vigilante justice and broad depictions of good and evil tend not to work as well in stories set in the present day, because we're all too aware of the damage Dirty Harry-style justice can do to the social fabric of the contemporary world. But it does work in Westerns, where the only law is the law of the gun. It's a genre made for severe parables of justice and retribution like High Plains Drifter. At the end, Mordecai remarks that he still doesn't know the stranger's name. The stranger simply responds, "Yes, you do." Mordecai understands, as do we. We understand that there are several ways to answer the question of the stranger's identity, all equally valid. (To listen to Eastwood's take on the stranger's identity, with spoilers, CLICK HERE.)

Production Notes: Universal wanted the film to be shot on the studio lot. Eastwood refused, and had a whole town built in the desert near Lake Mono in the California Sierras. Many of the buildings were complete and three-dimensional, so that interiors could be shot on location. Even the film editing was done on location, in a nearby log cabin. The screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, who had just won an Oscar for The French Connection. (Source: the DVD release and ClintEastwood.Net.)

Review © May 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1973 Universal Pictures and The Malpaso Company. All Rights Reserved.