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High Plains Drifter (1973)

by on 2012/06/15

“That stranger’s got everyone in this town at each other’s throats. He’s set himself up like a king . . . It couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden into Lago.”

* * * *

Sometimes I catch myself playing little mind games as I sit through the videos I review. Identify similar movies. Spot the character actors. Or my least favourite one: dear lord, how much time until it’s done?

With High Plains Drifter, the game was all new, thematic proverbs this time…

  • Be careful what you wish for.
  • Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • In for a penny, in for a pound.
  • Deal with the devil and you’ll get burned.
  • Live by the sword, die by the sword.

…and so on.

By the end, I had identified the one I found most appropriate: What if the cure is worse than the disease? To put it a more familiar way: What if Shane betrayed his hosts? What if the Magnificent Seven went to work for Calvera? What if Will Kane got out of town long before high noon? These scenarios hint at the mood conveyed by Clint Eastwood’s feature, his second as a director.

Also starring as an unnamed “range bum” he rides into Lago, with mountains on one side, and California’s Mono Lake on the other. A small mining-based hamlet, it supports a barber, blacksmith, church, general store, hotel, saloon, sheriff, stables and, of course, an undertaker. A busy undertaker.

Initially near-silent upon his arrival, the locals become hostile in short order. They’re deathly scared, and driven to an unnatural sort of meanness. They make the stranger’s life difficult, and he returns their particular hospitality, and then some.

In a sense, I’ve given away the whole plot, from beginning to the end. It’s an exceptionally simple tale whose rewards build in one-upmanship. It’s a fair bit more adult than many westerns to that point, but it’s also rather funny, always assuming you enjoy your humour dark.

Eastwood’s anti-hero is joined by a cast including Jack Ging (The A-Team’s General Fullbright!), Geoffrey Lewis (he looks like Elisha Cook Jr.!), and Mitchell Ryan (Commander Riker’s father!). Mariana Hill and Verna Bloom serve as hypocrite harpy and oracular seer, respectively, both victims of unsavoury assaults. They’re all mere foils and fodder to be toyed with before they’re done.

Having apparently thought his Man with No Name (Fistful of Dollars) to be too sympathetic, Eastwood’s character here is a killer and rapist, with an unspoken agenda, and distinct lack of concern for repercussions. Who, or what, is he? The answer is not provided, though clues suggest he is vengeance, a reckoning, supernatural, perhaps a spirit.

I suspected, when he was making all those Spaghetti Westerns, Eastwood picked up Italian Neorealism. There is more than a little of Pasolini’s Teorema in his Anti-Christ-figure’s progression. If his violent seducer has an honourable intent, he executes it in decidedly unholy ways.

It’s tough to be completely sure about him. He dresses in a lot of grey and some middling earth tones. He appears and later vanishes in a hazy dreamlike shimmer, a trick of light, or something more significant?

The audio design reinforces the visual cues’ ambiguity. Dee Barton’s score frequently underlays events with a low, nearly keening, shriek. I wondered from time to time whether it was a woman’s voice, a bowed string instrument, or a Theremin anchoring the music. Even something as common as the sound of the stranger’s horse was less clip-clop than a skipping inner groove in reverse. Truly unsettling.

I couldn’t help suspect some filmmaking mischief, with a title so close to High Noon. High Plains Drifter is like a cynical retake of the former, with the main character sowing dragon teeth on his way to escaping from town. It’s amusing and insightful, very twisted yet satisfying, among my favourite westerns of all time.

* * * *

Rated R

106 minutes

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