Tuesday, December 13, 2011

High Plains Drifter (1973)

This Clint Eastwood classic was his second film as a director (following Play Misty For Me) and seems much influenced by the Euro westerns he made with Sergio Leone. Stripped of naturalistic trappings, it is set in a raw, isolated mining town called Lago on the shores of a lake.

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


  1. I think if anything I prefer the more mythic to the more naturalized westerns. Not sure why. They appeal to the need for myth inside me, I guess. I did like Unforgiven very much though.

  2. I need to see this again. It's been a while.

  3. I was repelled by it. I remember standing in the lobby afterward, and watching silent viewers, locked in their own reveries, flood out. I hadn't enjoyed it. I wondered why I had paid money to be depressed by what I was seeing. But it was one of the greatest box office successes of all time.

  4. Great choice! I've lost count of the number of times I've seen this film. Eastwood looked natural in westerns. He paired well with Lee Van Cleef.

  5. Saw this again, on sky. Clint seems to be at ease in roles like these. The Unforgiven, another good role.
    But as I look around, at other actors who have starred in westerns, there have only been a few, who stand out as great western actors: Joel McCrae, Gary Cooper, and the best, John wayne!

  6. Great choice and a genuinely weird and powerful movie - the opening few minutes in particular seems to try and compress every kind of cliche it possible can and then it takes this semi supernatural left turn - fascinating stuff.

  7. You have a photo of Mono Lake, but that's not the filming site, is it? I like Pale Rider (which was filmed in the Boulder Mts of Idaho) and Unforgiven best.

  8. Charles, I probably have a pedestrian imagination. Myth doesn't interest me a lot.

    Patti, take your time.

    Richard, I share your feelings.

    Prashant, Eastwood had the build and physical grace (he still does), and the camera loves his face.

    Peter, if you accept that premise, it is a sad commentary on the notion of community.

    Cheyenne, it took a while during Eastwood's career to realize that he wasn't like the characters he was portraying. When he stepped out of that stereotype, his work really shined.

    bloodymurder, you put your finger on an aspect of the film that probably explains a lot of it--the knowing use of western cliches pushed to the limit.

    sage, according to imdb.com the film was in fact shot on the shores of Mono Lake.

  9. Wow, I didn't realize that. I always associate Mono Lake with the calcium deposit statues and the flies, which I don't remember seeing (but they were never right on the shoreline)

  10. Clint Eastwood's film High Plains Drifter (1973)

    The first time I saw High Plains Drifter was probably in the late 1970s. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs the film. Most westerns are either about cattle drives or cowboys and Indians. High Plains Drifter is different: this is a God's-Judgment-on-the-wicked western.

    Clint Eastwood plays a stranger who rides into the town of Lago--and he has a really bad attitude. This stranger is also very good with a side arm. During the course of the film, the stranger ends up killing some bad guys and burning the town of Lago to the ground. There are a couple of flashbacks of one Marshall Jim Duncan being whipped to death. At the end of the film, the audience can see that the stranger was the Second Coming of Marshall Duncan:

    The stranger rides out of the town of Lago past the cemetery. This little guy named Mordecai is writing something on a grave marker.

    The stranger looks at Mordecai and Mordecai looks up and says, "I'm almost done here."

    Then Mordecai asks the stranger, "I never did know your name."

    And the stranger replies, "Yes, you do."

    As the stranger rides off, the camera shows the grave marker: "Marshall Jim Duncan."

    I have a short story entitled "High Plains Drifter" (Ethos, March & May 1995); I have a book entitled High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America (PublishAmerica, December 2008); I have a blog called "High Plains Drifter." So is this some sort of gunslinger fixation or is there method to my madness? The clue is in one Scripture: "In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established."

    There is a lot of sin (unrepented sin) in the United States and in the world. When people continue to live in sin, eventually God's Judgment falls. The more people try to hide their sin, the greater God's Judgment. The people of Lago tried to hide the murder of Marshall Duncan, but their sin was found out. You can't hide from God.

    There is a scene in High Plains Drifter where this lady tells the stranger, "Ever since Marshall Duncan's death, the people in this town are afraid of strangers."

    There is another scene in High Plains Drifter where the people of Lago [the town of Lago reminds me of Algona, Iowa] are meeting at the church. One of the guys is speaking in the front of the church. The camera then pans to the right and shows a bulletin board with this Scripture:

    Isaiah 53: 3-4: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

    Marshall Jim Duncan was whipped to death; Jesus Christ was at least nine-tenths whipped to death. The stranger riding into Lago (the first scene of the film) is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: not as the Lamb of God, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

    Isaiah 63: 1-6: "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come. And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me. And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth."