Review: High Plains Drifter

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

As a director, Clint Eastwood cannot be simply written off as mindlessly imitative. He is far too intelligent in his eclectic appreciation of what works in the films of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, Eastwood has not yet subsumed what he has learned from his mentors into a coherent vision of his own. Thus, High Plains Drifter, like Play Misty for Me, occasionally promises more than it cumulatively delivers. Eastwood’s main problem here—both as director and as actor—is that he never quite gets together how he wants to come at a story which must wed a Leone-like revenge motif with a scathingly satirical examination of a town inhabited by rejects from High Noon. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name carried within his very character implicit hints of more-than-human motivation, so that at times he resembled nothing so much as a warrior Christ. Eastwood clearly had his former role in mind when he made High Plains Drifter, but that doesn’t save him from alternately overemphasizing his demonic hero’s supernatural origins and almost completely losing sight of them as he begins to focus more and more on his blackly humorous exposure of the town of Lago’s communal sins and deceits.

This exposure is effected by the vengeful ghost of a sheriff whose brutal murder the townspeople both instigated and witnessed nearly to a man. In exchange for the protection of his gun (against the very men they once hired to kill him and then doublecrossed into prison), they allow this peculiar revenant to rub their noses in their seemingly endless cowardice and duplicity. Ironically, the only even approximate man in Lago is a dwarf, also the only person who seems to recognize Eastwood as more than an itinerant gunfighter. Indeed, Eastwood’s flashback-memory of his terrible death is shared at one point by the dwarf in an eerily effective sequence: just after the dwarf has publicly allied himself with Eastwood, whose increasing depredations have inspired the townsfolk to plot his second murder, he takes refuge under a wooden sidewalk. There, through his eyes, we see surrealistically distorted flashes of Eastwood being whipped to death in the street. Then a quick shot of the dwarf cowering as before, but in different clothes. Cut back to a normal view of the street as three men ride silently into town, the men whose arrival we, along with everyone in Lago, have been nervously anticipating. But they are also the men who wielded the whips in the dwarf’s hallucinatory vision. Briefly, the safe and dependable separation of past and present time is visually violated; then and now merge into a nearly Leonean moment.

But such moments are lamentably infrequent as Eastwood’s revenge begins to turn heavyhandedly symbolic—particularly when he orders every building in Lago painted red and some quick-of-wit wearily remarks “It looks like hell” while Eastwood supervises the painting out of “Lago” and the limning-in of—you guessed it—”Hell” on the town’s signpost. Equally heavyhanded is Eastwood’s treatment of the only two women (Marianna Hill and Verna Bloom) Lago seems to boast: no demon lover, he comes on like a quintessential superstud so that an incredibly brief taste of the old in-and-out suffices to transform their antagonism into instant adoration. High Plains Drifter begins with Eastwood carefully wending his way down to the flatlands. As he approaches Lago, his mysteriously spectral figure seems to take its very form from the shimmering heat waves which fill the entire frame. At the film’s conclusion, Eastwood returns the way he came, slowly unshaping himself into that same hellish haze. I wish the movie’s middle had been so good.

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
Direction: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Music: Dee Barton.
The Players: Clint Eastwood, Billy Curtis, Mitchell Ryan, Marianna Hill, Verna Bloom, Geoffrey Lewis.

Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy