“It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes ’em afraid.”
1973’s ‘High Plains Drifter‘ is a defining American Western. Not just as Clint Eastwood’s only second feature as director, but as one of the finest examples of the then burgeoning revisionist Western genre. The fact that it’s completely undervalued against Eastwood’s later work is more a testament to his quality than to the film’s.
Our anti-hero (Eastwood) arrives in the sleepy frontier mining town Lago and within a few minutes swiftly guns down three(!) local gunslingers and then takes the town’s harlot into the livery stable and rapes her “in broad daylight”. And not only is he given a complete pass by the sheriff, he’s quickly hired on as the community’s mercenary protector. Turn’s out Lago has three vicious outlaws coming to claim what’s owed them.
Nothing this brazenly crass could ever be made in today’s politically correct world. Letting a film’s protagonist wantonly rape anyone, even under the eventually revealed circumstances, is now strictly off-limits. But, this was the 1970s and Hollywood was just getting its “R rated” feet wet after decades under the restrictive Hayes Code. Filmmakers like Eastwood were more than willing to push boundaries of good taste and “honesty” in repudiation of previously romanticized views of not just the Old West, but of modern society’s veiled nobility.
‘High Plains Drifter‘ borrows heavily, unsurprisingly, from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. From the “man without a name” motif through to the sharply unflattering view of these quaint, “civilized” townsfolk. Even the quirky, ominous score and the hauntingly surreal cinematography help to punctuate the tribute.
Questioning previously held notions of Good versus Evil would characterize much of Eastwood’s career. Follow-ups ‘Josey Wales’, ‘Pale Rider’, and ‘Unforgiven’ would only intensify this anti-John Wayne view of how America was and is. People make their choices for all sorts of reasons, “good” and “evil” have nearly nothing to do with it.
The film is decidedly unpolished; down-right hokey, at times. Much of the camera work is experimental and POV. The use of striking symbolism and chaotic dreams mixed with brutal depictions of violence create an oft-putting mess of style. Eastwood and cinematographer Bruce Surtees threw everything they could at it. It’s part strikingly brilliant, part melodrama silly.
Nothing is at it seems in Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Western ‘High Plains Drifter‘. A solid cast of characters, Eastwood’s trademark brooding charm, beautiful vista laden cinematography, loads of 70s cinematic grit, and a darkly twisted story merge into a perfectly imperfect vision of the American Old-West. A motion picture classic.