High Plains Drifter (1973)




I

High Plains Drifter was Clint's first western as a director. The drifter from the title is a loner, a man with no name, and we first spot him when he's still a distant figure, a rider emerging from heat haze above the high plains. Eerie sounds, almost sounding like shrieks of people in agony, slowly blend into choral chants alternated with shreds of martial drums. The rider briefly overlooks the valley from his high position, then starts moving downhill, towards the tiny little town in the distance. His arrival in town - a tracking camera following him - has all the studied ingenuity of a Leone opening, but it's also filmed with a cold sovereignty reminiscent of the work of the other great director Clint had worked with, Don Siegel. The town is not a deserted, snow white Mexican village, but a lakefront settlement. The chants and drums have dissolved, the only sound interrupting the oppressive silence, is the cracking of a whip.

The opening of High Plains Drifter, is one of the best openings of a western movie ever. Like the overture of an opera, it introduces the overarching themes of the story: the significance of virtually every element - the eerie music, the ghost like figure, the cracking of the whip - will be explained later. We soon learn about the stranger's proficiency as a gunslinger when he's challenged by three rednecks, but we keep guessing who he is or what he's after. When people ask him: "What did you say your name was again?" he simply answers: "I didn't". He's not a man of many words and his deeds aren't always virtuous: in a highly controversial scene (apparently Clint came to regret it later), he drags a woman into a stable after she has provoked him, and rapes her. 

Flashbacks reveal that a man was whipped to death in a town street, with the townspeople cowardly watching. The killers were handed over to the authorities but are soon to be released from jail, and the townspeople fear that they will return to wreak havoc. When they ask the stranger to organize the town's defense, he accepts, but asks virtually unrestricted powers in return and immediately starts using them: he installs the midget Mordecai as sheriff, seduces the wife of the hotel-owner and provokes local storekeepers by distributing their merchandise. Shortly before the three released thugs arrive, he orders the townspeople to paint the town red and change its name into "hell". The finale takes place in a true inferno, the stranger picking the three men off one by one, killing them in gruesome fashion with the townspeople - again - cowardly watching.

By then we understand the stranger must be related to the man who was whipped to death, but his identity is only revealed in the dying moments of the movie. When he's about to leave the town of Lago, the midget he made sheriff and mayor, tells him he still doesn’t know his name. “Oh yes you do”, says the drifter, and the camera turns to the grave of the man who was whipped to death in the town’s main street years before, Marshall Jim Duncan. The most logical conclusion is that the drifter is a reincarnation of the murdered Marshall, so has avenged his own death.
II

It's often said that High Plains Drifter was inspired by an Italian western, Django, il Bastardo (1969, Sergio Garrone). But that movie was only released in the US in 1974 and it's highly doubtful that Eastwood ever saw it before he started working on High Plains Drifter. Furthermore he could easily have picked up the idea of ghost-like avenger elsewhere, it's a recurring theme in world literature.

Authors (and their readers) have always been fascinated by the idea of communication between the worlds of the living and the dead. Dracula, the prince of darkness, leaves his tomb in search for the virginal blood. In Greek and Roman literature we meet several stories about the living visiting the Underworld, the equivalent of the Afterlife, talking to deceased friends and relatives, usually learning something about the way they died. Often the visitor is asked by the dead to set a few thing right, to take revenge in their name. In the most famous revenge story of them all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of a dead man appears to his son, and tells him how he was betrayed and killed. The idea is that the deceased can only find eternal peace when their worldly problems are solved. 

The western genre may be a bit too mundane to feature a character returning from the world of the dead, but there's one very famous western that might have inspired this story element. Several people attending pre-release showings of Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West thought Harmonica was a ghost, and some say Leone even considered for a while to treat Harmonica as such, but rejected the idea after ample consideration. In his book about spaghetti westerns, Alex Cox notes that Harmonica has a habit of sliding into frame, stealthily, almost as if he's coming from another dimension (1).  It's unlikely that Eastwood saw Django the Bastard, but he most certainly saw Once Upon a Time in the West. When he received Ernest Tidyman's script for High Plains Drifter, it was incomplete and reportedly the holes in the script were filled up with black humor and allegory, influenced by Leone (2). 

III

High Plains Drifter pays homage to the two great directors Clint had worked with in the previous years, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but it's also a modern reading of the town westerns of the fifties, of which Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) is the most famous. In most of the town westerns, and High Noon in particular, the townspeople are described as contemptible and hypocritical, not able (or willing) to defend themselves against the forces of evil. For its safety the community depends on professionals, hired to do a dirty job. These men are feared, often admired for their skills, but not loved. Deep in their heart many community members despise them. High Plains Drifter (I always wondered if the "High" in the title was coincidental) outdoes High Noon in contempt for the community. The idea is pushed so far, that it threatens to backfire. 

Westerns are basically morality tales, the actions of the western hero an illustration of a moral code; in High Plains Drifter we seem to have wandered off into a moral wasteland, with a hero who's not only selfish or crude, but downright nasty and amoral. His behavior is all but exemplary, all sympathy we may feel for him, originates in our disdain for the other characters. In the original writings, the stranger was the dead Marshall's brother, but Clint preferred a less explicit, more allegorical explanation (3). He must have felt that the only way to make the stranger acceptable to us, was to add a mythological and religious dimension to the story, turning the stranger into a being coming from the other side to settle a few scores, so he can have eternal rest in the great beyond. 

IV

High Plains Drifter is a remarkably assured movie for a man who had directed only one movie before (the rather undistinguished thriller Play Misty for Me); some scenes are marvellous, such as the opening and the recurring flashbacks to the fatal night, shared by the stranger and Mordecai, progressively growing longer, revealing more of what happened, and why. But there are a few shortcomings; the humor is often a bit tasteless, especially when it's used as a counterpoint for the cruel, oppressive nature of the movie, and this rape scene remains a particularly unpleasant moment. Apparently Clint came to regret it later (4).

When he made High Plains Drifter, Clint was in his early forties, becoming fully aware of his screen image and the social impact it had. His art would evolve into a more placatory direction; he'd briefly turn to comedy (like many other directors in the course of the Seventies) and his next western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is more about reconciliation than about revenge. A decade later, he would make a movie that almost reads like a revision of High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider: it also features a ghost-like avenger, but he comes to the aid of defenseless gold diggers and is known to them as 'Preacher', a Messenger from Heaven rather than a Messenger from Hell. 


Notes: 

(1) Alex Cox: 10,000 Ways to Die, A director’s take on the spaghetti western, p. 256
(2) Patrick McGilligan in: Clint: The Life and Legend (quoted on High plains drifter, Wiki Page)
(3) Inside the Actors Studio, interview with Clint Eastwood 
(4) Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, High plains drifter, p. 89
 


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