An isolated mining town hires a mysterious stranger to defend them from three approaching outlaws, only to get much more than they bargained for, in Clint Eastwood’s 1973 western High Plains Drifter.
It is no surprise that Eastwood would make a western as his second directorial feature: his reputation as a movie star was almost entirely based on performances within the genre. What is a surprise is just how unexpectedly savage and bleak his work here is. Earlier western roles had presented him as a softly-spoken antihero; Drifter paints him as an actively repellent murderer and rapist.
The first thing Eastwood’s stranger does upon arriving in the lakeside town of Lago is head into a saloon and order a beer. The second thing he does is go to the barber for a shave. From there he shoots dead three local men who go looking for a fight. When local woman Callie Travers (Mariana Hill) challenges him, he drags her into a barn and rapes her. In terms of developing character it is akin to cracking open an egg with a sledgehammer. The screenplay – by noted Hollywood talent Ernest Tidyman – requires the Stranger to be a cruel person. Having him assault a woman within the first 10 minutes of the film goes too far. In a film packed with antagonists, it leaves the audience without anybody left for whom to barrack. Perhaps that is exactly Tidyman and Eastwood’s intention; sadly if so it’s not sign-posted well enough to make a difference. Notably none of Eastwood’s on-screen characters are pushed so far in this direction ever again.
For some viewers the sexual assault will be reason enough to abandon High Plains Drifter entirely, and honestly they’re not wrong. Those who persevere will find an inventive and unusual film in which almost the entire cast of outlaws, gunfighters, and townsfolk are morally compromised in one way or another. The premise of the film situates the Stranger as the last line of defence between a town and its enemies, but the execution of the film shows he is as much there to punish the locals as he is to defend them. An epilogue even implies the Stranger is much more than he seems. The film boasts the aesthetic of a western, but the narrative of a supernatural thriller.
Eastwood has visibly learned his craft here from Sergio Leone – particularly in terms of its black humour – and Don Siegel. It is unexpectedly much more stylish and cinematic than his first directing effort Play Misty for Me. It is arguable he never quite presents such a stylised and inventive film again. He does revisit its core premise some years later in another western, Pale Rider (1985). I have often wondered if his effort there – with a much more principled and Biblically vengeful Stranger – was an attempt to redress his odious imbalance here. As it stands, High Plains Drifter is pretty close to a compromised masterpiece.