erik lundegaard

Tuesday March 19, 2024

Movie Review: High Plains Drifter (1973)


Just as “Pale Rider” was “Shane” with an avenging angel, this is “High Noon” with an avenging angel. You have a town of cowards, newly released prisoners coming toward them, and a lone man with a gun. Right, it’s not exact. In order to be more exact, Marshal Will Kane, rather than imprisoning Frank Miller, would’ve been killed by Miller and his brothers, the town would’ve been complicit in the killing, and as “High Noon” began, Gary Cooper would’ve ridden into town to enact revenge: to humiliate every man and rape every woman, before killing his killers and then riding off into the sunset.

It's a little sick, to be honest.

In Clint Eastwood’s previous film, “Joe Kidd,” he outmans everyone. This is that on steroids. Every man is weak and sweaty but him. Every woman resists him until he kisses them. Nobody can shoot anything and he can shoot everything.

Oh, he also stands up for Indians and little people—as he stood up for Mexicans in “Kidd.” Who knew Clint Eastwood was our original virtue signaler?

Rape and a haircut
I think I first saw “High Plains Drifter” in the late 1970s, edited for television, but probably not edited enough. Even then it was a little unappetizing for me. Maybe I empathize too much with cowards or people who can’t shoot straight.

I’d forgotten the town was next to a picturesque lake. I’d obviously forgotten the name of the town, Lago, which is Spanish for lake. It hardly looks like a mining town—more like a future tourist destination, as it is: Mono Lake in the California Sierras. The shooting location was actually scouted by Eastwood himself. Then he had the town built there. The man in charge of construction/design was Henry Bumstead, who also built the town of Sinola for “Joe Kidd” and Big Whiskey for “Unforgiven.” He was an art director for 30 years, 1949-1979, then kept going with production design—though most of his work in the ’90s and ’00s was strictly for Eastwood. Which speaks well of Eastwood.

This is Clint's first western as director, and there’s an eerie, shimmering quality to it, augmented by an ethereal score, but also a blunt, sweaty palpability. The Stranger rides into town, past a graveyard that includes the names of Clint's past directors—Sergio Leone, Don Siegel—which is either homage or declaration of independence. Or both.

Everyone watches him and no one says a thing. Finally he goes into the saloon, orders a beer and a bottle, says he wants a peaceful hour in which to drink it. He doesn’t get it. Three yahoos interrupt him. Turns out they’re the men the town hired for protection against the three main baddies, Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis in his first Eastwood) and the Carlin brothers (Anthony James and Dan Vadis), who are about to be released from prison. But they’re yahoos, and for some reason—the same reason young subway juvies pick on Charles Bronson—they decide to pick on the tall, quiet stranger. He deflects and walks away—to the barber, a sweaty, shaking, man with a greasy combover (William O’Connell), for a shave and a bath. This is an iconic scene. Mid-shave, the yahoos appear. They taunt and threaten and attack. And the stranger shoots them all with the gun he’s holding beneath the barber sheet. (Hey, a little Han Solo from “Star Wars,” isn’t it?) 

After that, we get the first rape. Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) bumps into him on purpose, chastises him, insults his manhood; so he takes her to a barn. Later, in his room, as he closes his eyes, he sees a man being whipped to death and begging the townspeople for help. This, it turns out, is Marshal Jim Duncan, played by veteran stuntman Buddy Van Horn, and the stranger is either his brother, his ghost or his avenging angel. The town is more than cowardly; it’s corrupt. Its mine is on government land, meaning none of the riches are theirs. Marshal Duncan planned on going public with it, so (I think) the town hired Bridges and the Carlins to kill him, then turned them over to the authorities. That’s why they’re worried about their return.

And that’s why they look to hire the stranger. He’s uninterested … until they say he can have anything he wants. “Anything?” he asks. So he keeps upping the ante. These boots, these blankets and candy for the Indians, a round of drinks on him. He makes the town dwarf, Mordicai (Billy Curtis), the sheriff. When the mayor laughs, he makes him mayor, too. He keeps requisitioning material: your barn, your bedsheets, your wife. He does try to train them—putting snipers on this and that roof—but they’re hopeless shots. Mostly he humiliates them. It gets bad enough that several band together to try to kill him. Instead, lighting a stick of dynamite with his cigar (a la Leone), he blows up most of the hotel.

Oh, and he has them paint the town red (literally), then renames it (unsubtly) “Hell.” And just before the baddies arrive, he leaves, going the other way. 

And now it’s the baddies’ turn with the town.

That night, the stranger returns. Against a hellish backdrop of burning buildings, he whips one to death, hangs another with a whip, and takes down Bridges in a gunfight. As he leaves the next morning, exiting the way he entered, he passes Mordecai making a grave marker for the fallen Marshal. “I never did know your name,” Mordicai says, to which the stranger replies, “Yes, you do.” Then the camera pans to and holds on the tombstone.

So yeah, not the brother.

True spirit
According to Richard Schickel in “Clint Eastwood: A Biography,” the initial script IDed the Stranger as a sibling, and Clint started out playing it that way. But “I thought about playing it a little bit like he was sort of an avenging angel, too.” All of which adds to the ambiguity.

“High Plains Drifter” did well at the box office, while critics were mixed—though its Rotten Tomatoes score is 94%, with one of the rotten reviews ironically coming from Schickel. But it did gangbusters with teens of my generation. That, I remember.

Who didn’t like it? John Wayne. Again, from Schickel: 

Clint recalls Wayne saying to him more than once, “We ought to work together, kid.” So when he found a script in which he thought they might costar Clint sent it on to Wayne, noting in his cover letter that the piece, though promising, needed more work. Too much more, in Wayne’s estimation. But in rejecting the proposal, he launched into a gratuitous critique of High Plains Drifter. Its townspeople, he said, did not represent the true spirit of the American pioneer, the spirit that had made America great.

Schickel sees this as “an argument between modernism and traditionalism, but I think it’s something more specific. “High Plains” riffs off of “High Noon,” which Wayne hated, because it’s a metaphor for the blacklist. Which he was in favor of. I think Wayne was still fighting that fight.

The movie is well-directed, cleverly directed, and the story is tight. It's just the other stuff I have a problem with. But apparently we will never tire of a seething moral righteousness given license to act immoral. We love that story so much we carry it into the world. 

Posted at 07:27 AM on Tuesday March 19, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s  
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