High Plains Drifter (1973) Revisited
My first encounter with this film was on my birthday during the install of my degree show. I was recommended to watch it by a friend who knew I would like it. That’s an understatement, I loved it. My memory of High Plains Drifter (1973) has long since faded, all I could remember was the ghoulish red town and the whipping flash-backs which stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In terms of the western genre this has more in common with its Italian cousin, the spaghetti western which strictly speaking are not westerns, they have the form of the genre but don’t really have the language of the American full-breed which if I’m honest are less violent during their greatest period. The violence was exploited and amplified. Once you get over the dubbing of all but the American star of the film (Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood et al.) you have this pumped up action film with more sex and violence than you’d have found to that point in the home of the genre. They didn’t carry the legendary status in the characters as subtly as Shane (1953), having built them up in the opening titles as these already fastest guns in the west-types such as Django (1966) where we are treated to another installment. Back home they’re stirred into action, not wanting to fight and draw their guns so easily, having more progression in the gunfighters.
Looking at Clint Eastwood’s influences his time with Sergio Leone strongly influenced him, the violence the stranger with no name, the anti-hero who you end up routing for comes out on top. His first western behind the camera he is still find his own unique voice, one he is adopting from the persona of the man with no name. The tone of Drifter is very European, its hard to sum up in a few sentences, the town looks freshly built, making it more become a backdrop that standout, it’s a newish town that is trying to sustain itself. Laying it’s foundations next to a lake that seems too close for comfort, suggesting it could all be washed away in stormy night. It all becomes very fragile. The town of Lago is actually another character that’s abused in the film (more about abuse later) which we see is transformed, blown up and eventually burnt down. Its part on the film is on some levels more important than the people who inhabit it.
Turning to the townspeople I’m reminded of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a town with a dark secret that is bubbling on the surface ready to spill over. Except we don’t have a strong replacement for the mean Robert Ryan who did actually scare the life out of Spencer Tracy (during filming) who was the outsider looking for the truth. The secrets a lot looser here as the film takes on more of a horror tone, Clint’s not giving us a straight Western, it’s a Western-Horror complete with flashbacks which you don’t really see in genre, that plague your mind. A sequence which is played out at least twice but feels a lot more in the mind. It’s the conscience of the town put on the screen.
There is also a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or should I say more precisely The Seven Samurai (1954) a cowardly town turn here to one outsider (not seven) that is more dangerous than the men they have been home to for at least a year that have played host to that have just been killed. Except these are all Mexicans who are fighting off bandito’s, they are American citizens who should by rights be able to pick up a gun and fight without fear. They seen off the Mexicans and almost solved the “Indian problem“, why are they so afraid? They need Clint’s stranger who doesn’t really care for them at all. Which leads me back to the flashbacks which are very important in our understanding of who he is, or in fact was. He is not so much flesh and blood as he has ghostly presence, he knows more about the town than he lets on. I believe he is ghost of the whipped town Marshall Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) who we see in versions of the same scene that we’re reminded off. It’s the reason that The Stranger is here, the reason the town’s scared of the men who will be riding back for revenge after a year in prison. We follow these men back, they are ruthless in their journey, killing for horses, clothes and fun, these are dangerous men for sure.
The Stranger’s presence in Lago shakes everything up, from his first hours he has raped a woman Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) which is brutal to watch, yet filmed from the woman’s perspective a glimmer of what is to come from Unforgiven (1992) nearly 20 years later. As much as Eastwood is a feminist he wants to come across as the revengeful type who will take what he wants. Maybe this was Duncan’s lover, we just don’t know. We do know that she vocal in her experience to the law who simply want to pacify her modern views that wont be accepted until the next century. We don’t linger as much on the rape as we do in Eastwood’s later film which hinges on request of the prostitute who places a bounty on the man who disfigured her. From a lower position in society they are exerting more power than the men who want to keep both cases quiet. Ironically their next encounter is much more consensual after working his charm and danger, as if he has broken a horse in, now he simply has to ride it when he wants (yes I know it’s a poor analogy but suits the film).
Here in Lago having The Stranger in town is very much to their advantage who abuses that power. From the beginning he turns things on there head. With a free card to do as he please, have what he wants he makes the much small person Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor of the town, the butt of the jokes, is placed in the strongest position behind the stranger. He’s not there for comedy with Clint who wants to play with these people who are fighting themselves more than they had before. It’s chaos in Lago. In-fact Mordecai’s built up, from being this typically comedic role to one of great importance, he uses his position to abuse those who have given him s*** for years, now it’s his turn. He is also another way into the past of the town, he too has a connection to the late Marshall, which may lead to his role in the film being so prominent.
I could go on forever about this film there is a lot going on so I’m going to turn instead to the ending which once again got me thinking of another piece I could make in the future, as the town is literally painted red, bringing new meaning to the phrase, which ironically has roots in my home county of Leicestershire in the town of Melton Mowbray when the Marquis ran riot causing mayhem and literally painting the town red in places. This is too strong to be coincidence, turning the idea on its head so the townspeople are causing the mayhem, they are preparing themselves, practically inviting the trouble. Renaming the town Hell, which has move to the surface of the Earth. The town can be seen far quiet a distance now, in one uniform colour of bright fake-blood.
All brought about by Eastwood’s ghost which is more than just showing up the town. He is getting revenge on them all, luring them into a false sense of security before deaths unleashed upon them. The role of the gunfighter’s turned on its head, no longer is he the gun for hire or protector of the people he is using his position to induce fear and draw it from his own past. Could he be the devil as the film draws to a close, he rode literally out of nothing and back into nothing, as if the ghost can now rest peacefully knowing that he has settled his unfinished business. Eastwood early on is showing that the standard western has to change, with his Italian influences and the changing language of cinema. You could say this is more fun than the formulaic Western but that would be ignoring the level of violence and rape that goes on. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the genre which he is reshaping in his image.
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