Sunday, May 09, 2010

High Plains Drifter

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 30 of 100

Clint Eastwood’s status as an icon of the western genre was established on the small screen by his portrayal of Rowdy Yates in ‘Rawhide’ and consolidated by his three-film stint as The Man With No Name for Sergio Leone.

Leone found immediate fame and an international audience with the first film of this trilogy, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, never mind that it was firmly bracketed as a spaghetti western – a pejorative term for mass produced Italian or Spanish cowboy movies made cheaply and aimed predominantly at the American drive-in audience.

The other, less popular, term for these kind of films was “horse opera”. This is definitely the more apposite description for Leone’s work in the genre. His westerns are epic and baroque. If Verdi had traded in the three-act operatic form for a poncho and a pair of pistols, he’d have been Sergio Leone.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Eastwood’s first western as director – following his apprenticeship under Leone in the Dollars trilogy and under Siegel in the southern gothic melodrama ‘The Beguiled’ – would have something of the grand guignol about it.

‘High Plains Drifter’, however, was grand guignol beyond anybody’s expectations. At its apotheosis the film is borderline surreal, closer in tone to Fellini or Buñuel than Leone.

The opening shot is of a heat haze – a mirage – shimmering over a desolate landscape. The Stranger (Eastwood) appears. By the end credits it’s left to the viewer to decide whether he’s a ghost, a reincarnation or an avenging angel. I make no apologies for not flagging a spoiler alert. Even if you know how ‘High Plains Drifter’ ends, and even if you’re convinced as to your take on The Stranger’s provenance, it makes not a jot of difference: ‘High Plains Drifter’ is a mood piece; it’s about atmosphere; about challenging preconceived notions of what a western should be, what it should deliver, how it should resolve itself.

The Stranger rides into the lakeside town of Lago. He hits the saloon and orders a beer and a whisky chaser. And when he orders a whisky chaser you’d better believe he means a bottle. Three bad dudes suggest, in so many words, that he might like to leave town. The Stranger ignores their advice. He finishes his beer and takes the whisky bottle with him when he heads over to the barber’s for a shave. The bad dudes follow and give him some shit. He blows them away.

Turns out these guys were the meanest, hardest and deadliest gunslingers the town council could afford, retained to protect the citizenry against the imminent release from jail of Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and his two gang members, a triumvirate who had previously terrorized Lago to the point of whipping lawman Jim Duncan (Buddy van Horn) to death. With the supposedly hard-ass but actually depressingly ineffectual gunslingers now pushing up daisies, the elders of Lago, represented by milquetoast current sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes), offer The Stranger whatever he wants in order to take their place and provide a first line of defence against Bridges and co.

We’re into Faust territory here. The townsfolk make a deal with the devil/avenging angel [delete as applicable] and are paid back tenfold for standing by and doing nothing while Duncan was murdered. One of The Stranger’s initial acts is to drag town harlot Callie (Marianna Hill) into a barn and force himself upon her. Initially depicted apropos of nothing, it’s a horrible scene. Later, when it’s revealed that Callie had been whoring herself out to Bridges during his reign of terror, a context is established but the scene remains as controversial and challenging in 2010 as it must have done when the film first hit the big screen almost forty years ago.

His sociopathy given free reign, The Stranger strips sheriff and mayor of their civic rank and appoints a dwarf in their place. He runs the other guests out of Lago’s hotel and occupies the entire building himself; when an assassination attempt is made on him, he dynamites the building in order to defeat his antagonists, leaving the hotelier divested of his livelihood. Elsewhere, he all but bankrupts the publican buying everybody in town a round; he snubs the racist manager of a general store by compelling him to turn over his choicest goods to an Indian family; he has every building in Lago repainted red, renames the town “Hell” and lays out picnic tables in honour of Bridges’ return.

When Bridges and co. come riding into Lago, The Stranger – having armed and stationed the citizenry in ambush formation – cavalierly rides out of town and lets them fend for themselves. Needless to say, Bridges and his cronies hand the good people of Lago their arses on a plate.

Only then does The Stranger make his return appearance …

‘High Plains Drifter’, in its dabbling with the mystical, presupposes both ‘Pale Rider’ where Eastwood’s character can again be seen as an avenging angel (this time dressed as a preacher and making his entrance as if in embodiment of a young woman’s prayers) and ‘Tightrope’ where he plays a morally corrupt cop on the trail of a sex killer who, for all intents and purposes, could either be a ghost or his own reflection. There’s a weirdness to ‘High Plains Drifter’, a sense of the off-kilter, that owes as much to Ernest Tidyman’s brooding screenplay and Bruce Surtees’ magnificent cinematography as to Eastwood’s edgy performance and restless direction.

There are at least half a dozen westerns on Eastwood’s CV that are undeniably classics. ‘High Plains Drifter’ is one of them, and it has an atmosphere and an iconography all of its own.


Aaron said...

Yep, this was a very surprising movie. I thought it was just gonna be some random Western. I didn't know much about it beforehand because while I do like Eastwood, I've never been a big follower of his. I was surprised at some of the supernatural elements, and I'd have to go with the theory that Eastwood's character is Death. But then again it's been so long since I've seen it, so I may have to go back and watch it again before I come up with a real conclusion. Great write-up, Neil. Looking forward to the other Clint reviews.

The Film Connoisseur said...

High Plains drifter kind of left me in shock with that one rape scene, I always thought of Eastwoods cowboy as a hero, I mean, even in films like The Good The Bad and The Ugly, even though he is an outcast, and hunted down by the law, you still feel he is somewhat of a hero.

Cant really say that about him in this movie. I guess it really shattered my expectations for a Clint Eastwood performance!

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent piece Neil. Think you really hit the nail on the head with the Bunuel comparison.

I don't know if Jodorowsky ever made a Western this unconventional.

dave said...

I totally agree with a lot of this. It's a really intense, surreal almost take-down of the Western Genre. Absolutely that rape scene is startling and really difficult to get past, but I think the message is that, in no uncertain terms, Clint Eastwood's character is no hero, so don't mistake him for one, even if the rest of the town is just as culpable. I wouldn't go as far as to say the movie is MORE unconventional than Jodorowsky, though. Let's be realistic here.

Actually, this movie was EXTREMELY influential for our Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." (which is basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Leone and Morricone.) we were actually planning on sampling this movie to explain something that happens in the second half, but decided against it. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at

Neil Fulwood said...

Aaron - Eastwood as Death is a very convincing reading. I've never been convinced by the minority opinion that The Stranger is simply a relative of the murdered sheriff out for revenge. The town of Lago is so tight-knit it seems unfeasible that news of the sheriff's murder would ever have spread.

Francisco - I know what you mean. The rape scene still troubles me. More so because this is Clint's first western as a director. Maybe he was trying to do something deliberately extreme in order to differentiate The Stranger from The Man With No Name; but even if this is the case, a gratuitous rape scene seems an excessive way of doing it.

Bryce - part of me wants to say that 'El Topo' is more unconventional than 'High Plains Drifter', but it's probably stretching the point to even claim 'El Topo' as a western. 'El Topo' is basically an acid-drenched counter-culture art-movie head-fuck that more or less accidentally touches base with a few western tropes. Westerns are generally the very model of classicism and 'High Plains Drifter' (superficially at least) ticks most of the boxes in terms of structure, mise en scene and iconography that it is instantly recognisable by its genre, and yet remains so left of base in its execution that it emerges as a challenge to one's expectations of a western.

Dave - thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment. And huge thanks for the link to the concept album. Inspired title. The hints of Morricone work brilliantly. With your permission, I'd like to link to this in a future article.

Thanks for your comments, guys.

The Film Connoisseur said...

You are right, he might been trying to set himself apart from Sergio Leone's films by making the character even more ruthless.

Dave said...

Neil - I'm a longtime lurker of your wonderful blog here and have been reading back through a lot of your Peckinpah related posts in the last few days... I was even surprised to see a link to my entry on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid! At any rate, I thought that I would break from strictly lurking and jump in on this one, which for me is one of Eastwood's very best films, western or not. I agree completely with your statement here:

"There are at least half a dozen westerns on Eastwood’s CV that are undeniably classics. ‘High Plains Drifter’ is one of them, and it has an atmosphere and an iconography all of its own."

In fact, I would probably place only Unforgiven ahead of it personally... and maybe Josey Wales, depending on the day that you ask me. That's how highly I think of HPD. A great piece here and I look forward to continuing to follow this series.

Tim Shey said...

The film "High Plains Drifter" is one of my favorite westerns.

I had a short story published by Ethos Magazine in 1995 titled "High Plains Drifter." It is more of a poetic sketch than a short story. It is on my Digihitch Road Profile (on my blog) or on the Internet Archive if you want to read it..