High Plains Drifter Review
Having found fame in the Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone, it's not surprising that Clint Eastwood should have chosen the genre for the follow-up to his remarkable debut Play Misty For Me. What is surprising, however, is that High Plains Drifter should be such an audacious spin on the genre, coming closer to the loonier Spaghetti Westerns such as Django Kill than anything made in America. It's not perfect and is, in one respect, rather unpleasant, but overall it remains one of Clint's most interesting films.
In an interesting and presumably intentional reference to his "Man With No Name" persona, Eastwood plays "The Stranger" who rides into the small coastal town of Lago. Typically, he is met with suspicion and aggression and, within ten minutes, he has killed three men who make the mistake of pointing guns at him. These men turn out to be the hired mercenaries who have been given the task of defending the town against three criminals who are leaving jail and heading straight for Lago to wreak vengeance on the citizens who rail-roaded 4them. It's not long before the town mayor is begging the Stranger to defend the town, an offer he takes up when he is offered anything he wants in return. Exactly what he wants turns out to be rather more bizarre than anyone expects and the film, which begins in conventional fashion, rapidly turns into something very dark and strange.
This is one of the rare attempts to produce a gothic Western and it generally succeeds very well. Eastwood creates a palpable atmosphere of sunlit dread, assisted by Dee Barton's unsettling music score, that is very different from most other genre films but quite similar to the mood of Don Siegel's undervalued The Beguiled. This tone keeps the viewer unbalanced even while the plot is rather disappointingly obvious. If you've seen Pale Rider then you will pick up the thread of this one in about five minutes. The nightmarish flashbacks which give the plot away are very well achieved, however, and once the Stranger paints the town red and renames it 'Hell', we're well into the realms of Cormac McCarthy's brilliant horror-Western "Blood Meridian". I couldn't leave out the invaluable contribution of Bruce Surtees here either; as ever, his cinematography makes the landscapes look like the fields of heaven, but his most important input is in the lighting of the second half of the film, which is genuinely sinister.
Eastwood's iconic presence dominates the film, but there are some nice contributions from the supporting cast including regular co-star Geoffrey Lewis and the excellent Verna Bloom as a taciturn hotel owner. I should also give special mention to Billy Curtis as the town midget Mordecai, whom the Stranger makes sherrif and mayor. Marianna Hill fares less well as a promiscuous blonde who is raped by the Stranger in the most objectionable scenes in the film; she not only appears to enjoy the rape, is is strongly suggested that she deserves it. Whether it is simply that changing times have rendered the scene unacceptable or that it's evidence of a misogynist trend among American films of the period is an issue I am going to skate over, but the scene leaves a nasty taste. I do, however, have to suggest that it's not entierly clear-cut; the Stranger is far from the unambiguous hero we're used to in American westerns, nor is he the basically decent figure of the Leone trilogy. He's a dark anit-hero at best and our positive reaction to him is perhaps more to do with Eastwood's own persona than the actions of the character. This self-examination of the western hero is something Eastwood eventually put right at the centre of his last film in the genre, the brilliant Unforgiven, so it's fair to say that the beginnings of that are evident here.
High Plains Drifter has, with the exception of the scene mentioned above, aged very well and is still an unusual and effective genre piece. It was early evidence that Eastwood would be much more versatile as a director than he ever would be as an actor and stands out as one of the relatively few seventies westerns that deserves to be remembered.
The Region 1 release of this film was non-anamorphic and suffered from major artifacting problems. Universal seem to have cleaned it up for the R2 release and it is an improvement. However, there are still few extras.
The picture quality is generally good. Rich colours are evident from the start, particularly important in this film, and the contrast is superb. Quite a high level of detail too. Some film grain, but not as bad as that on the Warner release of Dirty Harry. No serious artifacting, although some is evident in the darker scenes. The main flaw is the small black or white spots which appear constantly and are initially rather distracting. The transfer is anamorphic 2.35:1. If you haven't seen this film in the proper ratio then, to be frank, you haven't seen it. Eastwood frames the action very carefully and pan/scan ruins the compositions.
The sound is the original mono soundtrack. Nothing much to say; it's adequate for the purpose but lacks range and excitement. Dialogue is clear and the music sounds fine.
The only extras are some brief production notes, biographies and the original trailer which is an amusing period piece. We get 16 chapter stops and static menus, complete with those ambiguous Universal navigation icons.
I strongly recommend High Plains Drifter, especially to Western fans and also to those who are interested in genre-expanding American cinema from the seventies. It's a rare case of the horror film and the Western being successfully combined. The DVD isn't bad and certainly an improvement on the R1. Since a special edition is unlikely in the near future, this will do to be going on with.