Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A groovy, disturbing western? Not much clue.
What did I get? Forging an authentic movie of ideas out of what eventually ceases to be a “regular” western, Clint Eastwood continues to impress: High Plains Drifter is a gnomic and deeply unsettling allegory with meanings coming out the wazoo. In fact, it’s as rich an allegory as I have ever seen committed to film, suggesting a western written by Jean-Paul Sartre and directed by Ingmar Bergman — but even that astonishing description fails to capture its distinctively American directness of address. This is quite a movie — arguably Eastwood’s greatest.
Eastwood’s hero goes by no name — to greater effect than usual. In imitation of the denizens of forlorn and pathetic Lago (Spanish for “lake”) — appropriately and desolately perched on the edge of a desert lakelet — I’ll call him “the gunfighter.” Within an hour of his arrival, not only has Eastwood’s gunfighter polished off Lago’s three toughest hombres (previously hired by the town to serve as protectors), who were impolite enough to ambush him in the act of receiving a 90-cent shave, but he has also raped a local harpy, an act that instantly makes him the most “anti” of antiheroes imaginable. Within a day the craven Lagoites are falling over themselves to cede control of the town to him; soon enough it becomes clear that the gunfighter’s designs on the town are malign — and justified.
The guilt-ridden Lago citizenry is implicated in a prior atrocity that is surely connected to the cryptic flashbacks we see of a man being bullwhipped to death. In bits and pieces, it emerges that the town had arranged for the death of “young Marshal Duncan” for discovering that the town’s lucrative mine claim lay on government lands, after which it somehow buffaloed the hired assassins into a prison sentence — which is due to expire any day now. Terrified of certain retribution, the hapless, comfortable townspeople effectively sell the town to the gunfighter in exchange for protection — and so the grim fun begins.
The gunfighter’s mastery over the town calls to mind Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which was the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and several other movies, including Sergio Leone’s Eastwood vehicle A Fistful of Dollars. But whereas Yojimbo is rollicking, spiteful fun, High Plains Drifter is distanced, weighty, fraught, spooky. Ultimately, the gunfighter’s omniscience/omnipotence is consistent with a supernatural reading: While some have argued that the gunfighter is Marshal Duncan’s brother, various clues suggest that he is in fact the vengeful spirit of Duncan himself.
The deft structure of the gunfighter seeking revenge against both Lago and the returning killers permits Eastwood to pursue satisfying and unfixed metaphoric meanings (which also serve his self-image as an antiauthoritarian conservative). The abjectness of the townspeople yields well-nigh biblical readings involving the wages of sin and, in a more prosaic vein, the ineffectiveness of collective or responsibility-shirking solutions. As the gunfighter reduces the town (painted a ridiculous shade of orange, on his orders) to a flaming cauldron of death, it is useful to remember that the phrase “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” had recently become part of American parlance. In a rough way, Lago’s criminal origins, persistent protestations of virtue, and ultimate comeuppance point to a bitter stand-in for America itself. (That the gunfighter hands the sheriff’s badge to a mouthy dwarf and paints “HELL” over the word “LAGO” on the sign just outside of town is merely icing on the cake.)
As I suggested at the outset, the most impressive aspect of High Plains Drifter may be the way it never quite stops being a western, even as it takes on the delicious, heady shadings of a far more austere European movie. Miraculously, Eastwood refrains from dictating any one meaning, which makes High Plains Drifter such a treat to ponder.
What here smacks of 1973? The thematic ambition, the bone-deep pessimism.
IMDB score: 7.6
My score: 10
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Mitch Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Walker, Walter Barnes, Paul Brinegar, Richard Bull, Robert Donner, John Hillerman, Anthony James, William O’Connell, John Quade, Dan Vadis
IMDB synopsis: A stranger rides out of the hot desert into a small town in the wild west. The towns people are scared of him, and 3 gunmen try, unsuccessfully, to kill him. He takes a room and decides to stay. Meanwhile, a group of outlaws are about to return to the town and take their revenge – will the towns leaders convince the mysterious man to help ?