Unlike the processed western mythology of 1950s Hollywood and the often bland family fare of network TV, this film revels in its MPAA-rated sex and violence. Stylized and amped up, the action is of a piece with Eastwood’s trademark squint, cheroot, flat-brimmed hat, and unshaven grimace.
The contrived plot has a dream logic that makes sense only if you accept the premise. The townsfolk are so fearfully desperate that they will give a nameless gunman and rapist anything he wants to protect them from three bad men being released from prison.
Helping himself to whatever catches his eye in the stores of the town’s few merchants, including some dynamite, he orders up drinks for everybody at the saloon. There he gives the sheriff’s badge and the mayor’s bowler hat to a little person who’s obviously been kicked around for a long time by just about everybody in town.
In a disturbingly graphic flashback, we see the same Eastwood being whipped to death by three badmen, while the townspeople look on. A former marshal, his body is buried in the local cemetery. You puzzle over how no one would notice that the stranger they've hired looks like the same man. Eventually you begin to understand that something spooky is going on. Eastwood’s character is both buried in the graveyard and walking the streets, an avenging ghost.
Vengeance may be the Lord’s, but Eastwood does plenty of damage before he’s done. And he rides off into the wavery distance in the last shot, just as he appeared magically out of it in the first.
|Lake Mono, California|
Clint Eastwood went on to make more naturalistic westerns, which I prefer to this supernatural one. But for vicarious sex and violence, this one is hard to beat. There are many unusual effects of note, like Eastwood’s long, long entry through town on horseback, without a single sound except the plodding hoofbeats on the dusty street. The music track is also spare and appropriately eerie.
The screenplay was by Ernest Tidyman, newly established as a Hollywood writer with scripts for Shaft (1971) and The French Connection (1971). The film was shot at Mono Lake in the Sierras of Central California.
High Plains Drifter is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Films is an enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Heath Lowrance, Miles to Little Ridge