"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 28, 2022

High Plains Drifter


From The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) to Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) to Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood has made all kinds of westerns. High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of his more intriguing efforts in the genre – it takes the enigmatic Man with No Name gunslinger from Sergio Leone films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), fusing it with the gothic sensibilities of the Don Siegel film, The Beguiled (1971). It starts off as a typical lone gunfighter-for-hire story. In this film, Eastwood’s mysterious character is part avenging angel and part vengeance demon, determined to punish the people of a town for a crime that is gradually revealed.
The Stranger (as he is referred to in the credits) literally materializes out of the hazy, shimmering horizon like an apparition while Dee Barton’s eerie music plays on the soundtrack. After Eastwood’s credit and the film’s title appears, the score transitions into a more traditional western motif, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
High Plains Drifter starts in typical western fashion with a hired gun wandering into the town of Lago looking for work. After quickly and efficiently dispatching three mercenaries who challenge him, he’s offered a job by the town elders. Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin brothers, Dan (Dan Vadis) and Cole (Anthony James), have just been released from prison. They tried to steal gold from the town and whipped Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) to death. Now, they aim to return, take the gold, and exact revenge on the townsfolk.

The Stranger agrees and is given unlimited credit at all of the town’s stores and proceeds to exploit their goodwill, starting off by giving two American Indian children candy they were eyeing and a pile of blankets to their grandfather, right after the store owner berated them with racial slurs. He goes on to accumulate material items for free – new boots, a saddle, and cigars. He then uses his leverage to humiliate the town elders by making Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the town dwarf, the new sheriff and mayor, and has the hotel owner’s barn stripped of its wood to build picnic tables, much to their chagrin. They have to go along with it, lest they lose the only person standing between them and the vengeful outlaws headed their way.
The film’s big question: who is The Stranger and what is his motivation? Within minutes of being in Lago he has killed three men and raped a woman (Marianna Hill). Initially, it appears to be a nasty, misogynistic streak in the character but, as we learn more about the town and in its denizens, the more we understand what this mysterious gunslinger is doing. His motivation begins to shift into focus early on when he dreams of the Marshal being whipped to death while the whole town watched and did nothing. The haunting music from the start of the film comes on as we see Bridges and the Carlin brothers whip Duncan at night. He pleads for help while all the townsfolk stand and stare, the camera framing them in near-dark shots, some almost in silhouette, which creates an ominous mood. As the poor man is whipped to death he mutters, “Damn you all to hell,” which is exactly what The Stranger plans to do to the complicit townsfolk.
Interestingly, the second flashback to what happened to the Marshal that fateful night is predominantly from Mordecai’s perspective. He takes us back and this time, we see the townsfolk’s faces more clearly. Unlike The Stranger, he was there and saw what happened. Eastwood also cuts back and forth from shots of the outlaws’ evil faces, the residents, and the Marshal’s point-of-view. In doing so, he makes the man’s pain and suffering more personal and we see the townsfolk’s reaction to what is happening more clearly – some are indifferent, some afraid, and some malevolently approving. It is Mordecai, however, who seems the most upset and remorseful.

Who is the Marshal to The Stranger? It is never clear. The hotel owner’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) even asks him: he is coy with the answer, refusing to confirm or deny his relationship with the dead man. Everything he does in the town, from making a mockery of its elders to getting carte blanche with all of their resources, is to punish the townsfolk, not just for their complacency but for their sins. As the film progresses, we also learn more about what motivates the town elders – why they are so distrustful of outsiders, why they are so eager to cover things up, and why they hired The Stranger to protect them from Bridges and the Carlin brothers. The scenes with them illustrate the corruption inherent in the authoritarian structure – something Eastwood has been distrustful of his entire career – as The Stranger’s abuse of power eats away at the relationship among the town elders until they begin to turn on each other.
Future members of Eastwood’s informal repertory company of actors, Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, and Dan Vadis are well cast as the grungy, amoral outlaws that kill three men in cold blood as soon as they are released from prison, stealing their horses and clothes. These consummate character actors have no problem playing dirty, unrepentant, evil criminals and, over the course of the film, we anticipate their inevitable confrontation with Eastwood’s gunfighter. The key to his films is to have someone who is a formidable threat to his character and Lewis, with his character’s ruthless drive to exact revenge, is completely believable in that role.
Clint Eastwood received a nine-page treatment from Ernest Tidyman, known mostly for writing the screenplays for urban crime films such as Shaft (1971) and The French Connection (1971). The primary inspiration for the screenplay was the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964, in which 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and failed to help her or call the police. The starting point for Eastwood was, “What would have happened if the sheriff in High Noon had been killed? What would have happened afterwards?” Once he agreed to do it, Tidyman took these two ideas and developed the treatment into a script that was subsequently revised by Eastwood’s go-to script doctor, Dean Riesner, who added, his trademark black humor: early in the film, one of Lago’s hired guns says to The Stranger, “Maybe you think you’re fast enough to keep up with us, huh?” to which he replies curtly, “A lot faster than you’ll ever live to be.” The biggest mystery of the film is The Stranger’s identity. Eastwood later admitted that the script identified him as the dead sheriff’s brother and that “I always played it like he was the brother. I thought about playing it a little bit like he was sort of an avenging angel, too.”

High Plains Drifter was put into production in late summer of 1972. The studio wanted Eastwood to shoot the film on its backlot but Eastwood decided to shoot on location. He originally considered Pyramid Lake, Nevada but his car ran out of gas before he got there. The American Indian tribal council were divided about a film crew shooting on their land. Someone in the production suggested Mono Lake in California, which Eastwood had visited in the past. Once he arrived, the filmmaker found a point overlooking the lake and decided that would be the site for the town. He went on to find all the other locations within a four-minute drive save for the opening shot, which was done outside of Reno. Production designer Henry Bumstead and his team built the town of Lago in 28-days. They assembled 14 houses, a church and a two-story hotel. These were complete buildings so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on location.
The Stranger has the townsfolk literally transform Lago into Hell by painting of all the buildings red – a striking image to be sure – which not only evokes hellish imagery but also symbolizes the blood on the hands of the townsfolk who were all culpable in the Marshal’s death. The climax of High Plains Drifter is where the film goes full-on horror as The Stranger leaves, letting the ill-prepared townsfolk “handle” Bridges and the Carlin brothers. Naturally, they put up little to no resistance as they are too scared to shoot and run away or as in the case of Drake (Mitchell Ryan), the mining executive, are shot and killed.
Later that night, Bridges and his crew terrorize the survivors, exposing their hypocrisy. It is at this point when The Stranger reappears, that, just like the Marshall, as Cole is mercilessly whipped to death with The Stranger framed with nightmarish flames of the town burning in the background. The two surviving outlaws walk through the town on fire – hell on earth indeed – only for Dan to be whipped around the neck and hung. Bridges still has not seen The Stranger until he hears the words, “Help me,” (sounding very much like the murdered Marshal) and turns to see him standing in front of a burning building for the final showdown. He easily guns down Bridges who asks The Stranger’s identity – and gets no response.

Late in the film, the motel keeper’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) says, “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind.” High Plains Drifter ends on an emotional note as The Stranger observes Mordecai naming the Marshal’s previously unmarked grave before riding out of town, disappearing into the hazy horizon like a ghost with a reprise of the unnerving music from the opening credits. The dead Marshal can finally rest: those responsible for his demise have been punished. The film is a scathing indictment of how greed can corrupt those in positions of power. It is also a powerful critique of bystander apathy, as embodied by a town of cowards and petty, greedy tyrants that let a good man die. The Stranger embodies the dead man’s spirit and his search for vengeance.
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