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HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) ****

Clint Eastwood stars as the mysterious Stranger who rides into the small town of Lago and promptly blows away a couple of scumbags.  The sheriff takes notice of The Stranger’s considerable shooting skill and hires him to take out three ruffians, who went to jail for whipping a marshal named Duncan (also Eastwood) to death.  Since the gang holds the town responsible for their capture, they are coming back to massacre the citizens of Lago.  The sheriff gives The Stranger a free hand to operate in the town and he quickly runs around getting new boots, free whiskey and loose women.  The Stranger even makes the town midget (Billy Curtis) the new sheriff AND mayor, just for shits and giggles.  The populace of Lago soon grows to resent The Stranger’s bizarre behavior and they even try to kill him.  Naturally, that means he’s got to bust some more heads and blow shit up.  When the gang finally gets to town, they’re in for a hellish reception as The Stranger literally paints the town red and proceeds to open up a major can of whoop ass on them.

 

High Plains Drifter is my favorite non-Dollars Trilogy Eastwood western.  It was the first western Clint directed and in my opinion, he was never better behind the camera.  The barbershop shootout is some of the best stuff Clint ever did.  In this scene, The Stranger spins around in the barber chair and plugs the trio of assholes who are mocking him.  This guy is so smooth that he can gun down people while getting a haircut.  That’s total badassery right there. 

 

High Plains Drifter also satisfies from a stylistic standpoint.  While the opening scene may make you think that Clint will be aping Sergio Leone for the next 100 minutes, the film slowly becomes something entirely unique.  Eastwood drops in hints that The Stranger may actually be a supernatural apparition, and the film’s subtle otherworldly touches are what make it stand out from the rest of the pack.

 

Now I have to say that in interviews, Eastwood always maintained that The Stranger was avenging the death of his twin brother, who is seen being whipped to death in flashbacks and dream sequences.  It’s left open-ended though, so you can infer that the guy being whipped in the flashbacks is actually The Stranger, and now he’s a ghost who is avenging his own death.  I like this interpretation better.  In addition to giving the film an eerie quality, it also explains how The Stranger can survive being shot at point blank range in the bathtub as well as his ghostlike appearances during the final reel when he’s dishing out justice with a bullwhip.  Also, there’s mention of a restless spirit not being able to find peace until its body is placed in a marked grave.  Well, during the final scene of the movie, Marshal Duncan finally gets his marked grave at the same time The Stranger rides out of town (and consequently disappears).  This seems to be concretely saying that The Stranger is actually a ghost.  Eastwood says otherwise and he’s the one that made the damn movie, so who knows what to believe? 

 

Either way you interpret the film, it’s still fucking awesome.  It works as both a supernatural gunslinger story and as a straight-up revenge piece.  In the end, it’s the ambiguity that elevates High Plains Drifter from your typical oater and makes it one of Clint’s all time best films.

 

High Plains Drifter is a solid Number 4 on the Video Vacuum Top Ten for the year 1973, just below Schlock and right above Coffy.

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