High Plains Drifter (1973)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Ernest Tidyman and Dean Riesner (uncredited)
Produced by Robert Daley
Clint Eastwood’s sophomore feature as a director is every bit the exercise in efficiency, mood and supreme wickedness as Play Misty For Me, translating those qualities from a contemporary thriller to a western. Universal owned a treatment written by Ernest Tidyman, the white author and screenwriter who helped usher in the Blaxplotation genre with Shaft and its sequels. Tidyman expanded his western concept to a screenplay, which Eastwood brought in Dean Riesner to punch up. One of the pleasures of High Plains Drifter is the ambiguity of its anti-hero, credited as “The Stranger”, who could either be the relative of a marshal bullwhipped to death in a civic conspiracy or even better, the ghost of that marshal rising up to wreck supernatural vengeance. Which ever interpretation you prefer, it’s a hell of a movie.
The script has a hard hitting economy, with characters defined by what they are as opposed to who they are, but the film has a substantial moral universe pooled beneath the surface. When the hotelier’s wife warns, “You’re a man who makes people afraid”, The Stranger replies, “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes ’em afraid.” The action is styled less along the lines of a conventional western as it is on a community’s breach of the seven deadly sins and the divine retribution hammered down. The top-notch cast includes Verna Bloom and several actors who’d become Malpaso regulars. Exterior and interior sets were exceptionally well designed on location at California’s barren Lake Mono by Henry Bumstead, while the lighting by Bruce Surtees and musical score by Dee Barton set a spectral mood from the jump.
Out of the desert, a horseman materializes and rides into the desolate mining town of Lago. Branded as The Stranger (Clint Eastwood) by the anxious townsfolk, his efforts to enjoy a shave and a bath are harassed by thugs employed to protect the mine. Establishing himself as the toughest hombre in town, The Stranger helps himself to a roll in the hay with the local sex kitten (Mariana Hill) and inherits a loyal assistant in a dwarf named Mordecai (Billy Curtis). The Stranger checks into the hotel, where he draws open contempt from the only person in Lago with any backbone, the hotelier’s wife Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom). During his sleep, The Stranger is vexed by memories of Lago’s former marshal (also Clint Eastwood) being bullwhipped to death by gunslingers in full view of the townsfolk, who refuse to help him.
Fearful that the marshal’s killers (Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, Dan Vadis) will return to wreck vengeance on Lago when released from a territorial prison, the townsfolk offer The Stranger carte blanche to protect them. He puts the men through rifle drills on moving targets, but their marksmanship skills and willpower fail to inspire anyone. The Stranger begins to wear out his welcome with the co-chairman of the mining company (Jack Ging) and the hotelier (Ted Hartley) who resist being taxed for the defense operation, which will have something to do with picnic tables and 200 gallons of blood red paint. It’s revealed that the townsfolk conspired in the murder of the former marshal out of fear he might close the mine. As the desperadoes arrive, The Stranger gives all of Lago a homecoming they won’t forget.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 24 users: 96% for High Plains Drifter
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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