Review: High Plains Drifter

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Having established himself as a confident director with Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood took to the saddle in 1973 with High Plains Drifter, his take on the western genre with which he was then so heavily associated. Bringing to the familiar formula an eerie sense of supernaturalism, Eastwood again contorts the expectations of a well-treaded genre.

Soon to be beset by a trio of jaded criminals newly released from prison, the town of Lago opts to hire a mysterious stranger to protect them from the framed and vengeance-hungry men. Amid flashbacks to the brutal and fatal whipping of the former Marshall, the stranger prepares the town to defend itself from the hell to come.

A figure on horseback rides toward us from the horizon, darkly clothed and sporting a menacing grimace. Like the famous character from whom his star was born, this is Clint Eastwood playing a man with no name; a stranger. Dee Barton’s eldritch score accompanies his journey, meshing a sense of foreboding apprehension with the mystique of this darkened figure. The mysterious gunfighter from out of town is one of the western genre’s staple characters, the heads which turn as this incarnation thereof travels down the town’s main street reinforcing our own assumptions. Here is a lone traveller, desiring only a drink, a shave, and a warm bath. When he is heckled by three excessively boisterous gun hands, we know well the fate which awaits them. This is a dangerous man, but one who only acts in his own defense. That is, of course, until he sees fit to grab a woman, pin her down in a barn, and rape her. Here we see our preconceptions wholly dismissed, the stranger revealing himself to be far more malignant and sinister than genre conventions would have us anticipate. And yet, as the story deepens, and the narrative unfolds through flashback and references by the characters to events in the past, we begin to re-evaluate that which came before. Working again with cinematographer Bruce Surtees, Eastwood crafts scenes of darkness wherein only the very faintest of silhouettes can be made out; his characters are cast in shades as black as his themes. In every sense of the word, High Plains Drifter is a dark film, the emasculating murder of the Marshall and impartial on-looking of the township given a haunting solemnity through the stripped-down lighting scheme. Fusing the influences of Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, Eastwood here plays tribute to both, much as he would again with 1992’s Unforgiven, as well as nodding toward his own archetypal character’s penchant for lighting sticks of dynamite from his cigar. A film greatly informed by its generic predecessors, it builds upon the legacy of Eastwood’s dual mentors, incorporating both the fun sensibility of western action and a more allegorical, meaningful approach to bring something new. Though its suggestive editing and some expository dialogue all but directly offer answers to what is often construed a mystery, it remains open to differing analyses, unusual for this particular genre.

Bringing something new to a genre that thrives on innovation, High Plains Drifter presents a classic western revenge story with overtones of the supernatural. Gloriously cinematographed and benefiting from a classically stoic Eastwood performance, this is further evidence of a strong directorial talent in the making. Intelligent and action-filled, it lends itself to multiple viewings and a wide variety of interpretations.

[notification type=”star”]68/100 – Gloriously cinematographed and benefiting from a classically stoic Eastwood performance, High Plains Drifter was further evidence of a strong directorial talent in the making.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.