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The western is America's most famous and iconic film genre automatically making it one of the world's predominant narrative templates and over more than a century of cinema it has been put to every use imaginable, from cheap programme filler to mammoth Cinerama epic to farce to bloodbath. The last great surge of westerns, known evocatively as "the anti-western" and exemplified by the films of Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman, came during the 'Nam era, when convenient myths about American good and evil were universally called into question. Here, the western set of totems and stereotypes good guy, bad guy, gunfight, hard-working frontier town were interrogated right down to their amoral hypocrisy and pathological psyches, a process that no film underwent as explicitly as Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973).
Which is not to suggest that Eastwood's movie is a dead-serious intellectual indictment it's raw pulp, with plenty of adolescent overripeness and crude narrative ideas. But the bones of it are outrageously metaphoric, as much as any western since Monte Hellman's mysterious, seminal cheapie The Shooting (1967). Eastwood plays a nameless gunslinger who simply rides into Lago, a small, spare mining town built on the edge of a huge mountain lake. He doesn't talk much, in the classic early-Eastwood vein, but the townspeople are all wary, suspicious, openly hostile and plagued with shame. Our anti-hero is confronted time and again, leading to a few impromptu corpses and, in the film's most wildly questionable scene, a rape of the town trollop (Marianna Hill). Interestingly, we hardly blink at this laconic gunhand dispatching a few antagonistic frontier men with pistol blasts to the forehead and chest, but the rape which like everything else in the film is involved with a protracted plan for retribution sticks in our contemporary craw, even if the hateful woman in question does eventually return with her own gun, seeking vengeance.
In any case, it becomes clear that what we've got here is a postmodern morality play, in which justice is methodically served but no one is heroic or good at heart. The town's backstory hovers over the action like a thunderhead in the recent past, a sheriff who'd been gearing up to report the mining company's territorial infractions got horsewhipped to death in town, and virtually every citizen had either participated or watched. All have remained silent since. Structurally mix-'n-matching aspects of High Noon (1952), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Forty Guns (1957, as well as hearkening forward to Eastwood's masterpiece Unforgiven, 1992), the film also has metaphysical implications Eastwood's mystery man is either a ghost, an avenging angel, or simply a walking-talking deus ex machina, personifying the townspeoples' self-immolating guilt, and preparing to bring grief to an American frontier founded on bloodshed, capitalist greed, rampant self-interest and immigrant exploitation. (Eastwood, shying away from the supernatural, has stated more than once that he had always thought of his character as the dead sheriff's brother, but the film never suggests this, and offers only notions of cosmic eeriness.)
Taking advantage of the town's quaking fear over a trio of returning outlaws (led by Geoffrey Lewis, Juliette's dad), the gunslinger essentially takes over, making a put-upon midget (Billy Curtis) sheriff and mayor, having a lavish welcome-home picnic set up for the impending criminals, and forcing the townspeople to literally paint the entire town blood red (one of the gritty '70s' most Boschian images). Eastwood's character even renames the town 'Hell' in red paint on the sign at the town limits, further suggesting an Old Testament reading or even an existentialist view, in which Hell, as per Sartre's No Exit, is no more than our own sins and our own communities. Either way, you cannot escape the fact that all westerns are about America in symbolic terms, and in High Plains Drifter the only America we see is Lago itself, rotten and secretive and visited by divine winds of reprisal. Despite his dogged ham-and-egger-ism, Eastwood has fashioned a parable about our national state of mind and its long history of carnage and usurpation, and despite his apparently ambivalent attitude towards state violence (compare the neocon Heartbreak Ridge (1986) to Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and commence the head scratching), he has made a film, in an era chockablock with such films, about the injustice of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
It's a good thing High Plains Drifter is such a rich and thorny creature in its ambiguities and abstracted subtexts, because on the surface it does indulge in hammy TV acting (mostly from a supporting cast full of faces familiar from old TV westerns like Rawhide and Bonanza), and veers close to being simplistic and cheesy in its attitudes toward women, gunplay and tough-guy patois. As for Eastwood, he had shown such vulnerability two years earlier in his directorial debut Play Misty for Me (1971), but in this, his second shot at directing, he effectively transports himself back to the inexpressive, squinting Man with No Name of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. (Both "S. Leone" and "Don Siegel" are seen as names on gravestones.) But as we have learned in recent decades (from, among other devotees, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton), one decade's dismissible genre junk is another's pop-culture commentary. Like other potent pulp from the late-'60s-early-'70s, I'm thinking about George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), Bob Clark's Deathdream (1974), Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (1970), etc. Eastwood's movie resonates beyond its grade-B trappings, and speaks eloquently in simple language about epochal social realities.
Producer: Robert Daley
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Music: Dee Barton
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Cast: Clint Eastwood (The Stranger), Verna Bloom (Sarah Belding), Marianna Hill (Callie Travers), Mitch Ryan (Dave Drake), Jack Ging (Morgan Allen), Stefan Gierasch (Mayor Jason), Ted Hartley (Lewis Belding), Billy Curtis (Mordecai), Geoffrey Lewis (Stacey Bridges), Anthony James (Cole Carlin).
C-105m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Michael Atkinson