High Plains Drifter (1973)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Ernest Tidyman, Dean Riesner
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Mitch Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Ted Hartley, Billy Curtis, William O'Connell, Buddy Van Horn
I have a confession to make. Clint Eastwood has directed over 30 movies and I have only seen 3 of them; Gran Torino (2008), Unforgiven (1992), and High Plains Drifter (1973). Clint tends to direct movies that look like movies I might enjoy but I just never get around to actually watching. I've probably just lost the respect of many of my film geek friends but I will try to fix the problem as soon as possible.
Now, you would think that when Clint Eastwood was announced as this month's choice for the Lambs In the Director's Chair feature that I would take that as an opportunity to see some of his films that I have missed. You would be wrong though, I decided to go with an old standby that I had been wanting to write up for quite awhile. Hopefully reading some other entries for the Director's Chair will inspire me to finally watch more of his movies.
High Plains Drifter is not your typical western. In fact, if reports are to be believed, John Wayne criticized the movie for being a violent and revisionist portrayal of the Old West. In most westerns there is a likable protagonist for the audience to connect with. Even if that protagonist was an anti-hero like John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) there was still some underlying trait that would allow the audience to connect with them.
Clint Eastwood's The Stranger in High Plains Drifter is not only an anti-hero but he is a sadistic anti-hero that wants nothing more than to see the town of Lago suffer. Now, the town of Lago may deserve everything it gets in this film but that doesn't necessarily make The Stranger a likable character for what he does. Clint Eastwood, as both director and star makes it hard for us to like The Stranger from the very beginning. Within ten minutes of meeting The Stranger we see him kill three people and rape a woman. These are not exactly the traits of a hero in the normal western.
Now even though there are no really likable characters in the movie that doesn't stop the movie for drawing me in for others reasons. All of the characters have a mystery behind them that keeps me interested in finding out just what dark secrets everyone has. What does The Stranger have against the town of Lago, why is he there, where did he come from and most importantly just who is he? The town of Lago has its own secrets that are slowly revealed as the movie moves along. The mystery of the town's sordid past and just why all the people in the town are so afraid is enough to pull me into the film without any of the characters being likable.
Clint Eastwood's direction in the film is marvelous and helps to tell the story. He obviously takes a lot of his inspiration for how he shot the film from Sergio Leone. However, Clint manages to create his own unique style in the film that is able to set him apart of Leone. Some of the choices he made really help make the story seem more real. For example, actually building the small town completely on the bank of a river instead of trying to shoot on a Hollywood backlot really helps to create the feel of a small, western town. In fact, one of my favorite iconic shots from any western comes from this film. The long shot of the town of Lago completely painted red always had such an eerie feeling to me.
Over all High Plains Drifter is one of my favorite westerns and the fact that it is kind of an "anti-western" is probably part of why I like it. I tend to prefer the non traditional westerns like this and High Noon (1952). In fact High Plains Drifter and High Noon have a lot in common, both focus on a cowardly town that is looking for someone else to clean up one of their messes but don't necessarily want to help with the clean up. Clint Eastwood's The Stranger is a much different character than Gary Cooper's Marshal Will Kane.