After the cowardly residents of a mining town stand by while a local lawman is whipped to death, his reincarnated spirit returns as The Stranger (Clint Eastwood). He agrees to protect them from a gang of criminals who are due to be released from prison, but he also sets about getting revenge on the townspeople for their betrayal.
High Plains Drifter is a morality tale carved out of the harsh Western desert and directed with a panache that synthesized the styles of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, two directors who had worked with Eastwood frequently. The result is one of the best Westerns of the 1970s.
The story begins as a mysterious stranger (Eastwood) materializes out of the desert heat. He rides into the small town of Lagos, where his presence is considered a threat by the mean and cowardly populace. Before too long, he is attacked by three gunmen, and Eastwood kills them all coolly and efficiently. The stranger then rents a hotel room, and the town dwarf, Curtis (who is also disenfranchised in town due to his size), attends to his needs.
By the time the Stranger makes the corrupt community paint their town red and re-name it "Hell," it is clear that he is not just another gunslinger. With its fragmented flashbacks and bizarre, austere locations, High Plains Drifter's stylistic eccentricity lends an air of unsettling eeriness to its revenge story, adding an uncanny slant to Eastwood's antiheroic westerner. Seminal western hero John Wayne was so offended by Eastwood's harshly revisionist view of a frontier town that he wrote to Eastwood, objecting that this was not what the spirit of the West was all about. Eastwood's audience, however, was not so put off, and an exhibitors' poll named Eastwood a top box-office draw for 1973.
"John Wayne didn't like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and let me know it. He wrote me a letter putting it down, saying it was not The West. I was trying to get away from what he and Gary Cooper and others had done."
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER has been called deconstructionist, formulaic, a dark study of the soul and a simple western… All of the above, and a scorching classic to boot. Clint Eastwood’s first true American “avenger” film, re-writing the book on the quintessential cowboy; no longer the singing fop or the John Wayne do-gooder; the cowboy was now a sociopath, a recluse, an "anti-hero."
The second directorial effort by Eastwood (after Play Misty For Me, 1971) is a revolution in film-making. We may well say “they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore” but the fact is: they didn’t even make ‘em like that back then! Note all the departures from Gene Autry/John Wayne convention: The Stranger is the star of this show, yet his horse is not white, but a dirty mottled appaloosa; he is unshaven, with a dusty longcoat (and he doesn’t get any cleaner), he speaks in a velvety rasp usually reserved for villains and movie trailer voiceovers, without unclenching his teeth, like he holds all and sundry in utmost contempt (which he does), he doesn’t wait for the “bad guys” to draw first (he’ll shoot ‘em in the back, or in the dark, or without warning – as long as he kills them); even his hat was not the usual “cowboy hat” with upturned sides, but flat-brimmed.
The Stranger displayed such calculated cool in gunning down the three bad men from the opening scene, that the sheriff (Walter Barnes, channeling Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) begs him to become the town protector against three outlaws who hold a vendetta against the town and were on their way to Lago for revenge. In return for his protection, The Stranger would have free reign of the town and its resources.
The Stranger tears down people’s barns to make picnic tables, makes the town midget, Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the mayor and sheriff, gives free supplies to Native Americans, eventually forcing the townsfolk to paint all their buildings red and rename the town “Hell” – and we realize The Stranger himself is exacting some kind of revenge on the townsfolk.
In the town’s dark past, these townsfolk stood by and watched as their Marshal, Jim Duncan (Clint’s actual stand-in, Buddy van Horn), was whipped to death by the three outlaws. Was it coincidence that The Stranger breezed into town at exactly the moment that the outlaws would return?
(High Pains Grifter, by Jon Dunmore © 21 Apr 2008. poffysmoviemania.com)
A lone wolf slavers down the trail of a thrilling scent. It doesn't look left or right. It's preoccupied in its single-minded pursuit. It shuts out everything from its consciousness except for the lure of that scent. The wolf can only satisfy the ferocity of its longing through the remembered sense of cornering its prey. So the lone wolf goes on resolutely stalking through an inner city landscape of dark puddles and cobbled streets towards its prize. Nowhere are these 'lone wolf' fantasies and desires more clearly seen than in the Clint Eastwood film, High Plains Drifter.
The Drifter organizes the town into trying to defend itself against the expected arrival of the three, professional killers. He then appears to leave them to fend for themselves. The final humiliation of the town comes with the easy destruction of the defenses by the hired gunmen and their cowardly capitulation.
At the last minute the town is saved by the re-appearance of the Drifter. He draws the threads of the revenge plot together by intimidating and then destroying the killers. The film ends with a shot of the new grave for Jim Duncan in the town cemetery, and the High Plains Drifter disappearing into the hills again.
(Achilles Heel at achillesheel.freeuk.com)
Tuffa at Mono Lake
Sierra Nevada in background
Image taken in June 2004 by Daniel Mayer
The seductive appeal of these fantasies and desires can be very intense in the lives of many men. They suggest that the rugged, self-sufficiency of the Drifter can be actually achieved. The main myth of High Plains Drifter is that self-sufficiency can be achieved without our debt to our invisible networks of support being fully and clearly acknowledged.
The Drifter doesn't appear to be dependent on anybody else. He isn't dependent on a woman. He just comes out of the mountains, rugged and weather-beaten, when he wants to. He isn't answerable to anybody else. He's not weighed down by domestic ties or attachments that sap his energy and his strength. He can get by through his own emotional self-containment. And he's free to return to the mountains at his own pace.
Unlike ordinary men, the Drifter isn't controlled by his emotions. He doesn't feel fear. He never panics. He just shows an unruffled calm when confronted by trouble. He clenches his cigarillo in his teeth, screws up his eyes, and doesn't need to say much. It's almost as if he doesn't have an inner world, that he's all robust action in the outer world.
(Achilles Heel at achillesheel.freeuk.com)
High Plains Drifter was filmed on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. The screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman and an uncredited Dean Riesner, with Tidyman authoring the novelization. Dee Barton provided the film's eerie musical score.