In the opening minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s Stranger wanders into Lago, a dusty mining town situated on a lake in some western expanse. He quietly passes through the town to the bar, orders a beer, a bottle of whisky, and “a peaceful hour to drink it in.” The other men at the bar, belligerent and distrustful of strangers, don’t give him that quiet. They descend on him like vultures, trying to intimidate him, but he’s not to be intimidated. He walks across the street with his bottle of whisky and enters the barbershop, asking for a hot bath and a shave. The barber puts a sheet around the Stranger and lathers him up, his hand shaking with fear, knowing that he won’t get the chance to shave the man before violence ensues.
As if on cue, the men from the bar across the street enter the shop, keen to attack the Stranger and repay his disrespect. But they don’t get the chance. A bullet pierces through the sheet covering the Stranger and finds a man’s forehead. Two more bullets send the other men to the floor and through the window of the shop. The Stranger gets up from his seat and the townsfolk flood to the barbershop, keen to celebrate this man who has suddenly liberated them from the bloodthirsty thugs haunting their town. It’s an opening directly riffing on every Western that has come before, especially the opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West in its use of silence and tension. For a moment, High Plains Drifter is hitting all the conventions of the Western.
But soon enough, Clint Eastwood shatters them, laying the groundwork for one of cinema’s best revisionist Westerns.
As the townsfolk squabble on about the Stranger’s quick dispatching of these thugs, the Stranger walks away from the barbershop, disgusted by their fear-turned-flattery. The local belle, Callie Travers (Mariana Hill), doesn’t share the effusive praise of the townsfolk. She bumps into the Stranger in the street, telling him to mind where he goes. Instead of courteously and quietly accepting her insult or trading a clever retort, as most heroes in past films would do, the Stranger takes Callie into a nearby barn and rapes her. This is a shocking act, both morally and narratively. The conventional hero of a western is not meant to be a rapist, but as becomes immediately clear, this man is no hero. He’s a vengeful spirit visiting evil upon the town in payment for their past misdeeds.
Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter goes on to follow the townspeople of Lago as they hire the Stranger to defend the town against three outlaws just released from prison and intent on taking revenge on the town. The Stranger initially wants nothing to do with these people, but as he smells money and treachery, he decides to stay around. The townspeople offer him whatever he wants in exchange for defending it and so he goes about exploiting their open-ended offer, attacking their racism, greed, and religious hypocrisy in the process. For instance, he uses his carte blanche to make a mistreated dwarf named Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor, and ejects all the guests from the hotel so as to stay there by himself.
At every turn, the townspeople’s fear leads them to capitulate to the Stranger and every time the Stranger smells a scent of hypocrisy, he works to expose it. Instead of venerating the notion of the American small town, High Plains Drifter shows the American small town to be a breeding ground for greed, hatred, and hypocrisy. In many ways, the film works as an allegory, with the Stranger acting as a ghost of America’s past sins coming back to wreak vengeance and expose the truth.
It’s a proud tradition in American art to dismantle the myths of the nation. Sinclair Lewis won a Nobel Prize for doing it in his satirical novels and filmmakers and novelists continue to satirize the United States to this day. However, Eastwood extends his deconstruction of American iconography to the cinema and its most American genre, the Western. He furthers some of the themes of his closest collaborators, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, portraying the American West as a vicious place where evil is celebrated and honour is punished.
Since he’s riffing on these directors, it makes sense that his visual style builds off of theirs. High Plains Drifter was only Eastwood’s second film and he was still developing his own style, relying on the clean compositions and staccato violence of Siegel and Leone to fill the gap of his own understanding. As previously stated, his opening would belong comfortably in a Leone film, with the mixture of extreme wide shots demonstrating the gap, physically and philosophically, between the hero and the villagers, and extreme close-ups building the tension up to the inevitable violence.
John Wayne reportedly criticized High Plains Drifter for its cynicism and violence, saying it didn’t demonstrate the true American West that Wayne had portrayed in his films. However, Eastwood’s film is not so much an indictment of Wayne and his cinema as an exploration of how the West and America in general exploits and destroys individuals of the sort Wayne used to play. This is a vicious film that has nothing but contempt for people who stand behind the myths of America to hide their weakness and greed. It’s an early demonstration of Eastwood’s moral complexity as a filmmaker and his decades-long exploration of America’s inherent violence and hypocrisy.
9 out of 10
High Plains Drifter (1973, USA)
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Ernest Tidyman; starring Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Mariana Hill, Billy Curtis, Mitchell Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Walker, Walter Barnes.