For eleven years now I’ve had a tradition/superstition/delusion that my first review of a new year has to be a Clint Eastwood movie. And I’ve written about other Clint movies at other times of the year, so the pool of untouched marquee titles is shrinking. Let’s go through chronologically: I’ve done A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, I’m saving the other Sergio Leones for a rainy day, and I’ve done almost everything else through the ‘70s: HANG ‘EM HIGH, COOGAN’S BLUFF, WHERE EAGLES DARE, PAINT YOUR WAGON, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, KELLY’S HEROES, THE BEGUILED… I have not done PLAY MISTY FOR ME, but I feel like I’ll want to do that on a Valentine’s Day or something.
I’ve done DIRTY HARRY, I did JOE KIDD last year, and there are a handful after that I could still get to. But HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) is an important one just sitting there, the second thing he ever directed, first western he directed, his movie that seems most influenced by working with Leone.
The only reason I hesitate is the same reason it kinda seems fitting as a start to 2024: I’ve seen this and it’s a dark one. I don’t want to jinx anything, I don’t want it to be representative of the type of year we have ahead, though I have a knot in my stomach every day telling me it might be. No, I want this to be an exorcism. Or at least an acknowledgment of some of the ugliness that’s out there, that we gotta get past.
Clint plays a character just credited as “The Stranger” who rides into the small town of Lago, tries to get a beer, a bottle of whisky, a shave and a hot bath. But he only manages to get the bottle and a few sips of the beer before he has to kill some guys.
Alot of this movie, and especially the opening, is all about people watching this stranger while he pays them no mind. As he rides in we see every character in every location in the town watch his arrival, some of them in awe. Men huddled at the bar turn and give him the stink eye as he comes in, as he orders, as he sits down and starts to drink. When Billy Borders (Scott Walker, THE WHITE BUFFALO, ORCA) and some other guys get in his face about being a “flea-bitten range bum” he leaves the beer, takes the bottle across the street to the barber. And we see them still watching him from across the street for a while before they come over.
I like the reoccurring gag that the barber (William O’Connell, BIG BAD MAMA) tries to stay out of it and mind his own business but is nervous around all these scary guys so his hands get shaky while he’s holding a knife to their necks. When Billy Borders comes over to fuck with The Stranger while he’s sitting in the barber’s chair they don’t expect him to pull his guns out and shoot them all dead from under the smock. I’ve always been a fan of Dirty Harry stopping that bank robbery while still holding a hot dog, so I gotta have love for The Stranger winning a shootout with his face covered in shaving cream. (He never does get the shave.)
After that the men don’t just watch him, they follow him around. Especially Mordecai (Billy Curtis, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PYGMY ISLAND, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN), who appoints himself The Stranger’s sidekick, runs around lighting his cigars for him and stuff.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, there’s a supernatural angle to this revenge story. The Stranger is startled by the sound of a whip, and has a nightmare about being whipped, seemingly a traumatic event from his past. But then you see that it’s not Clint in the dream. It’s actually his longtime double and stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn, playing U.S. Marshal Jim Duncan, being bullwhipped to death by three hired guns, Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis in the first of six movies he did with Clint) and the Carlin brothers, Dan (Dan Vadis, FOR A FEW EXTRA DOLLARS) and Cole (Anthony James, BLUE THUNDER). It’s implied that this Stranger is Duncan returning as some type of ghost, unable to rest because he was buried in an unmarked grave. He’s back to avenge mainly his three murderers but also the whole town. You see, the marshal was killed for discovering the gold mine was illegally built on government land. That threatened their livelihoods so they looked the other way and ignored his cries for help.
But then they got cheap and framed Bridges and the Carlins as gold thieves rather than paying them – a short-sighted plan because it wasn’t that long of a sentence. They’re about to get out and everyone expects a return visit. Billy and friends were who the mining company hired to stop them, but all they did was drink beer and harass people for a year and then get their dumb asses killed by the Stranger less than 24 hours before they’d have to actually do something. (And you wonder why we say “defund the police.”)
The town council figure their only chance is to hire The Stranger to protect them. As long as he’s on the payroll he can have anything he wants: goods, women, etc. He walks around with a big entourage, makes the bartender (Ted Hartley, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK) give them all free drinks, makes the gunsmith (Reid Cruickshanks, FLETCH) give them rifles, etc. The business owners complain and the mayor (Stefan Gierasch, CARRIE) says ”Everybody’s gotta put something in the kitty,” but you know how big companies are about paying their fair share.
The picture it paints of the government and law enforcement only working for big business seems timeless. When the preacher (Robert Donner, DAMNATION ALLEY) is uncomfortable with the idea of hiring a gunfighter, a mining executive (Mitchell Ryan, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE) slams his hands on the table and says, “Borders, Morris and Short were professional gunfighters on the payroll of the Lago Mining Company to protect our interests and the interests of this town, which are identical.”
They conspire to have the Stranger killed, but the only things killed are the dummy in his bed, the guys who get dynamited along with half of the hotel, and the guys who he shoots out front. The Downtown Lago Business Association is not gonna be happy about this.
Storywise this a standard western formula movie, in a good way. But it has that ghost angle and two other things that I think make it very distinct. A subtle one is that instead of using one of the same old western town sets from the other westerns they built a new one (interiors and all) alongside a lake, like the town’s name implies. Makes for a little different atmosphere – water on the horizon, gulls mixed in with the standard wind and jangling spur sounds.
But the most memorable touch is the extra flair and effort the Stranger puts into his plan to fight off Bridges and the Carlins. The best part is that he renames the town Hell and gets the townspeople to literally paint it red. Every single building. Alot of paint and alot of work just for some menacing symbolism. He also pays local Mexican carpenters to build him some long tables and has “Luty Naylor barbecuin’ a whole damn steer” just for the joke of these guys getting out of prison, riding into town and finding a big picnic and a banner that says “WELCOME HOME BOYS.” He also gets the townspeople to practice shooting dummies, of course, but honestly he puts more elbow grease into his little bits, and I admire that.
After he sets that all up and the bell is ringing to signal that Bridges and the Carlins are approaching, the opening kinda happens in reverse. They all watch him get on his horse and ride out of town, leaving them to get killed. Oh shit!
The town is a pushover for those guys, but at night The Stranger reappears surrounded by flames, swinging a bullwhip. He hides in the darkness, looping the whip around necks and yanking them off the ground like he’s Batman. The next day after they load up the coffins he literally disappears into the sunset, and the music by Dee Barton (HOUSE OF DEATH) sounds like a horror movie.
Being that he’s coming back for supernatural revenge a year after his own murder, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER can be considered a precursor to THE CROW. The Stranger is The Crow except instead of a goth rocker he was a U.S. Marshal, so instead of coming back as a musclebound harlequin who quotes poetry he’s a scraggly gunslinging drifter in a dirty coat. In some ways he seems less sadistic than The Crow (who would never bother with running up a huge bar tab as part of his revenge) but he’s way worse in the specific sense that he rapes a woman right at the beginning of the movie. Callie (Mariana Hill, EL CONDOR, MESSIAH OF EVIL, THE GODFATHER PART II) is portrayed as maybe intentionally provoking him to do it and definitely enjoying it, tropes I always hate. When she unsuccessfully tries to shoot him the next day The Stranger and Mordecai joke about it and the sheriff (Walter Barnes, CLINT THE STRANGER) tells her to stop “the hysterics.”
The only other major woman character, Sarah (Verna Bloom, AFTER HOURS), suggestively grips a broom handle when she first sees him, then pretends to despise and fear him. Sharing a room with him she says he’s gonna rape her, then climbs on top of him when he doesn’t. Not the most enlightened sex politics in this one in my opinion. (Ten years later in SUDDEN IMPACT Clint would show more sympathy toward a character avenging a rape.)
I’m very aware of a double standard here. I hate seeing a cool anti-hero that’s a rapist, but I don’t mind seeing him kill bad guys right and left, even though both things are wrong. The Stranger is not supposed to be a role model, but on the other hand he does things we can get behind, like when the shopkeeper makes some racist comment about getting him “a squaw or a Mex” to have sex with and then yells accusingly at some innocent Native American customers, so the Stranger uses his privileges to make him give the Natives all the blankets and candy in the store for free.
So it messes with me because right there he’s cool, he’s sticking it to ‘em, but also I already know he’s a rapist. I’ve always been uncomfortable with this movie, but maybe that’s good. It works as a commentary on the cult of personality, and of violence. Like somebody says in the movie, “He’s got y’all snake fascinated.” We think this guy is cool when he’s on our side, but violent people are never fully on the side of righteousness. It’s always gonna go wrong. So why pretend otherwise?
He’s not really a stranger after all, nor is he a hero, or a protector. He’s bringing Lago down to Hell. Leaves most of them dead. Maybe it was a cleansing, he burnt out all the corruption. Or maybe he just wrecked the place and killed a bunch of people and changed nothing. At least he can rest now, I guess.
It only now occurs to me that HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER turned 50 last year. According to the-numbers.com it was the 17th highest grossing movie of 1973, the year’s biggest western. It made more than PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and WESTWORLD, but less than Clint’s MAGNUM FORCE, which was #6 for the year. He was smart to try to add a new element to the western. Something a little heavy metal. I wonder if he ever saw EL TOPO?
Around that time Eastwood was trying to do a multi-generational western icon thing by getting John Wayne to co-star with him in a movie called THE HOSTILES. The script was by the great Larry Cohen (around the time of BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and right before IT’S ALIVE) and Clint would’ve played a gambler who wins half of older rancher Wayne’s ranch, and they hate each other until they have to defend their land together. Wayne not only rejected it but sent Eastwood a letter saying how much he disliked HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER because, according to Clint, “it wasn’t really about the people who pioneered the West.” Wayne hated movies with bad sheriffs and townspeople, which made Eastwood realize they really were of different generations, wanting different things from their westerns.
Maybe that’s why Wayne’s son Michael liked the script and tried to give it to him again during a sailing trip. The Duke said “This piece of shit again” and threw it overboard. Since Eastwood didn’t want to do it with anyone else the project died until it came back as a 2009 Hallmark Channel movie called THE GAMBLER, THE GIRL AND THE GUNSLINGER starring Dean Cain and James Tupper.
The HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER screenplay is credited to Ernest Tidyman, author of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and SHAFT (book and movie). Dean Riesner (COOGAN’S BLUFF, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, DIRTY HARRY) did an uncredited rewrite. Originally The Stranger was Duncan’s avenging brother, but Eastwood had that cut because he preferred the ghost idea.
The script was inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a notorious case widely cited as proof of urban callousness after a New York Times article claimed there were 38 witnesses who did nothing. Decades later the same paper corrected that “Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help.” Only two realized someone had been stabbed, and one yelled at the attacker, scaring him off; they didn’t realize he continued the attack in another location. Eventually a 70 year old woman came out and cradled her in her arms, and at least two neighbors did call the police, who nevertheless initially considered the victim’s girlfriend a suspect. Luckily the murderer was later caught stealing a TV in a car similar to one witnesses had described, and he confessed during questioning.
Maybe the moral there is that the world isn’t quite as bad as we always think it is. There are terrible people in it but they’re the exception and we don’t need to send the entire town to Hell with them. I hope.
P.S. Previous entries in the Clint Eastwood new year tradition:
2013 – TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE
2014 – A PERFECT WORLD
2015 – THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
2016 – KELLY’S HEROES
2017 – PINK CADILLAC
2018 – TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA
2019 – THE MULE
2020 – WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART
2021 – THE GAUNTLET
2022 – ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ
2023- JOE KIDD