High Plains Drifter

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:





2019 – THE MULE


2023- JOE KIDD

This entry was posted on Monday, January 1st, 2024 at 11:12 am and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “High Plains Drifter”

  1. Happy new year, Vern and all the other cool folks from here.

  2. Anyone here actually seen THE GAMBLER, THE GIRL AND THE GUNSLINGER? Anne Wheeler directed some excellent stuff in the ’80s; on the other hand, “Dean Cain” and “Hallmark Channel” aren’t names that fill me with confidence.

    And yeah, happy new year!

  3. Starting the new year with a bang, I see.

    In the late ’90s I saw this at a rep screening with a bunch of people who had never seen it before, and the rape seemed to be a HUGE sticking point in the after-movie discussion. To hear it, one would think they just watched a two hour rape scene instead of two minutes (if that), and the opinions ranged from “’70s movie, so OF COURSE there’s a gratuitous rape scene” to “that sort of crossed the line for the whole ‘anti-hero’ thing” to “that movie was misogynistic trash”

    Personally (and this could very well be due to seeing it much earlier than them), I always took it at face value, I suppose. Initially, it’s supposed to be off-putting (and it is) as you have no idea how chaotically/lawful good/evil this stranger is, then as it plays out, you discover Sarah was as complicit in the Marshall’s killing as everyone else. Since it’s pretty obvious by that point you’re watching Old Testament in the old west, it seems fitting.

  4. I think this is the one Eastwood western that I never saw. I have tried to and always turned it off. I even watched TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA more than once growing up! I think this new year it’s high time to finally give a whirl. Maybe there’s something there for 40 year old me to chew on that just wasn’t visible when I was 11 or something.

  5. Happy New Year.
    Great to see you cover this one.
    As problematic as it is, this one still stands up. I love that Clint essentially trolls an entire town into doing his dirty work for him. Top stuff.

  6. Happy New Year to all!

    Here are some of my favorite passages from this review:

    “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.”

    I appreciate the way you wrestle with the psychology of hope and fear here, Vern. The heartbreak, the uncertainty, the hope, the disgust, the desire for deliverance. We talk about crimes of passion and road rage, because a lot of violence is infused with and justified by intense emotionality. Typically fear. We hope for a pleasant, stable, fruitful, continued existence. A chance at some degree of peace and flourishing. We fear loss, death, chaos, and subjugation. Even when we think we have good policy / technocratic solutions to the problems we face, there is the problem of convincing a critical mass of people to agree that our preferred solutions are the good. In the end, it is very hard to overcome tribal loyalty and the shared fear that governs it and to some degree governs all of us. I remain an unrepentant disliker of the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, but I maintain that Yoda’s words about fear being at the root of many problems is some of the best pop psychology on offer, as far as explaining our blood lust, will to power, cycles of violence, scapegoating, xenophobia, craving of strongmen. Fear doesn’t explain everything in human social behavior, but it explains the popular dimension of social conflict and culture warring pretty well in my opinion.

    In any event: This is a great, meditative peace that offers a sober, wary, and humble mindset as we face a high-stakes, high-uncertainty 2024. Not hopeless, not naive. Watchful and reflective.

  7. Thank you Skani, that’s very nice of you to say. Happy New Year!

  8. Yeah, the rape scene in this really puts me off. I don’t like rape scenes in general, and it really just made it nearly impossible for me to root for the Stranger after that. I get it, killing people is really bad too. But we’ve been sort of conditioned into hand-waving that away in revenge movies in favor of awesomosity. But raping a girl is one step too far for my anti-heroes.

    Meanwhile, was Clint obsessed with ghosts of dead cowboys or something. His character in Pale Rider also seems to be a vengeful ghost, just a much more sympathetic one than in High Plains Drifter. Or maybe PR was a way to sort of do a soft reboot of HPD so that he could have a vengeful ghost cowboy who didn’t carry around the rapey baggage.

  9. Great piece to start the year Vern.

    This was one of my dad’s favourite films. Think I would’ve been 11 or 12 when I saw it for the first time. Obviously, at that age, I loved the bleakness, brutality and world class badassness of The Stringer.

    Last time I started to watch it was maybe fifteen years ago with my then-girlfriend. I was raving about all that good stuff and then it got to the rape scene and we pretty much turned it off. If I’d been alone, I’d probably have kept going but her reaction definitely changed how I looked at it.

    Never quite get round to that big Clint marathon but maybe this is the year.

  10. Une Belle Chappelle

    January 2nd, 2024 at 4:04 pm

    Next year: “Tarantula”. (Clint doesn’t play the tarantula. But, spoiler, he does shoot it at the end!)

  11. In the French dubbed version, when Mordecai asks his name, he says something like “it’s the same name you’re writing on my brother’s tombstone”, so either the people in charge of translating the dialogue only had the original script to work with, or the French distributor thought audiences would be confused or upset by an answer that implied a supernatural angle.
    I loved the movie when I was young and at the time I thought the rape scene worked as a warning for the audience, “he’s not a good guy, and he’s only bringing misery to those people”, not that it was supposed to mean “he’s so awesome that women enjoy being raped by him” (as in, say, CRANK). I haven’t watched it in ages, I’d be curious to revisit it.

  12. I don’t think the culture that produced LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD has a leg to stand on when it comes to intolerance of vague, open-ended supernatural chicanery. How would they feel if we dubbed in dialogue where Le narrateur was like “So I read those pages in that mysterious book over there and it turns out we are DEFINITELY lost souls stuck in limbo after your husband shot us for fooling around behind his back. Kind of a bummer but at least we get to spend eternity looking fabulous, right?” Our westerns have just as much right to not make any sense as their eerie art-house romances.

  13. Happy New Year, everyone! I haven’t been around much since last summer due to illness. You know, one of those where the cure takes almost as much out of you as the illness itself. But things are looking up right now, and I’m putting my money on 2024 being one of the better ones.

    I don’t know if Clint followed the Italian scene after he left, but in my book HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is heavily inspired by AND GOD SAID TO CAIN…from 1970, with Klaus Kinski. Same basic pemise, but with a lot more action in the European version. It’s on youtube in a better print than the one I bought on dvd.

    The story about John Wayne is sadly typical. After 1972 the man seemed to lose touch with what the audience wanted. He could have been in a movie with Clint, he could have been Dirty Harry and he could have made LONESOME DOVE with James Stewart. Instead he gave interviews that made him out to be the biggest asshole in Hollywood.

  14. Very glad to hear you’ve weathered a tough spell, pegsman — back up, machete in hand, sliding the hockey mask back on! And here’s to staying principled without going full curmudgeon in the 2024, pilgrim!

  15. …glad about the weathering part, of course — not the tough spell part itself. That sucks!

  16. Happy New Year to one and all! I’m gonna hope its a good one for all of us.

    I probably have something to say about HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, but it’ll keep. Right now I’m wishing Pegsman the very best. Sorry that the treatment is so tough, but really glad to hear that you’re weathering. Like the man said, “It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”.

    Keep moving forward.

  17. Thanks for those kind words, guys. As Charles Bukowski says “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire”.

    There’s another story from the early 70s that’s quite interesting as a “what if” when it comes to Eastwood. John Wayne and James Stewart was given LONESOME DOVE as a potential collaboration, and if Clint had gotten onboard with that I think we could have had something really great. Maybe not as good as the final product with Duvall and Jones, but still…

  18. So, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER then; this is a solid middle-tier Eastwood western, which means it’s still pretty good, and the gothic parts don’t annoy me as much they do in THE BEGUILED, possibly because it’s still a western. But yeah, at this point, the scene we all remember is the rape scene. And it’s not that the protagonist is a rapist that’s upsetting – ’70s movies are full of morally flawed or just plain reprehensible protagonists and we can accept that – it’s that the script and the direction take such a flawed position on it, telling us that she wants it, she enjoys it, she deserves it, the full misogynist jackpot of attitudes.

    I too can remember watching this with my father, and all that went unremarked upon. If I watch a movie with my kids we usually end up having a long discussion on whether the protagonist is justified even if the worst they do is use commonplace discriminatory language. I’d like to think that is some kind of progress.

  19. One of my more common complaints about more recently made westerns is that many of the actors don’t look the part or seem comfortable in them. I think this has to do with the smaller numbers getting made and the chance for actors to make a career in them. But this is practically never the case in Eastwood’s westerns, although obviously HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is 50 years old, so not so recently made, and the machinery of making westerns was still pretty solid at that point.

    Anyway, in my head Anthony James is in a lot of Eastwood westerns, but in fact it seems he was only in this and UNFORGIVEN. Strange.

  20. I love this and THE BEGUILED. Both bizarre, grizzly, with a Gothic/Noir vibe and buzzing with an undercurrent of menace throughout. With diametrically opposite endings. Clint’s Confederate Soldier and Quaker fatally overestimates his charm, sex appeal and cunning and then gets taken out by a boardinghouse of resourceful women in BEGUILED, but in DRIFTER, he’s clearly in charge throughout, a gale force of destruction visiting retribution on a town for wrongs inflicted.

    The rape scene, then and now, remains problematic but as Ernest explained, we’ve had flawed, asshole anti-heroes for like forever, but what pushes that scene from disturbing to distasteful is the assumption the haughty woman definitely asked for it, most likely deserved it and possibly even enjoyed it. (see also: Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS for an even more problematic depiction of sexual assault).

    When you watch Eastwood’s entire Western filmography you really appreciate these almost schizophrenic shifts in tone between them.

    Like the Civil War is but a backdrop to THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, but it’s toll is explored in OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. The myth of the cool, laconic, stylish gun fighter cutting down enemies is fully embraced in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, A FEW DOLLARS MORE & PALE RIDER, but then along comes HANG ‘EM HIGH & UNFORGIVEN telling you that shit ain’t cool and it’s a “helluva thing killing a man”.

    And for the heck of it, he tosses in a rom-com Western and Musical Western into the mix. Man’s been fucking with me for years, and I love it.

  21. Then there’s THE GAUNTLET, which takes the legend of the rebel cop who plays by his own rules and says “What if he only plays by his own rules because he’s too dumb to remember what the actual rules are?”

  22. While far from being the worst from the 70s, the rape scene in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, along with the ones in STRAW DOGS, DELIVERANCE, DEATH WISH, DEATH WISH 2 and ONCE UPON AT TIME IN AMERICA always makes me hesitate a little before I rewatch the movies. Michael Winner obviously saw these scenes as entertainment, but jeez, Sergio Leone came on strong there at the end of his career.

  23. I think that one of the main reasons actors don’t look the part or seem comfortable in later westerns, is the realism the directors go for. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, to name just a few, didn’t make that many cowboy movies. But they made them in a time when the lead was groomed to look cool. The only one who seems to be concerned these days with what kind of hat the main character is wearing, is Tarantino. His guys look the part, even if they’ve never been in a western before. And of course, Clint, like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Henry Fonda, was tall, thin and had a cinematic way of walking. The only one I see now that has the same qualities, is Timothy Olyphant. Let’s hope they remember him when they start remaking the classic westerns.

  24. Oh ya…unpacking the Eastwood Cop Filmography yields it’s own bounties. Took me like 2 watches of THE GAUNTLET to realize how ineffectual Clint’s cop is. And then there is the (now) little talked of Eastwood thriller TIGHTROPE, which was basically “What if Dirty Harry has serious sexual hang ups and is even a little on the sleazy side?” Contains 2 of the most unfortunate lines written for an Eastwood joint; One where he tells co-star Genevieve Bujold he’d like to “lick the sweat off her body”, another where his character’s daughter tells him he “can get all the hard-ons he wants”, doubly unfortunate as she was played by Eastwood’s real life daughter Alison, making her film debut!

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