High Plains Drifter (1973) is the second film in Clint Eastwood’s rather auspicious filmography as a director. This is the first to explore the genre of the Western, where Eastwood made his name, after the contemporary surrounds of his first directorial effort Play Misty for Me (1971).
The film starts really promisingly as a lone rider emerges from a haze of heat on a wide open plain. It is beautiful and iconic image to kick things off. The lone rider is The Stranger, played by Eastwood, who rhythmically rides into town with the eyes of all the townsfolk transfixed on him. It does not take him long to make an impression on the place either. He guns down three heavies who are bugging him in the barbershop before raping a woman in a really troubling scene. I was a big fan of proceedings up until the rape scene. Eastwood with his hat pulled very low and a beard is an iconic image of the West. The scene where he shoots the three men is a cold, brutal one. He gets the first of them right between the eyes. The rape scene jarred a lot though. It comes somewhat out of nowhere and whilst it is addressed somewhat later on, it just didn’t sit right with me. The notion of rape as a form of revenge was troubling to me, but I don’t think the film made it out to be particularly troubling, if that makes sense.
There is a strange shift in tone and sensibility a little way through the film. The townsfolk are fearing the return of three convicts who have just been released from prison and who are presumably on their way back to town to gain revenge on those who put them away. Very High Noon (1952). The concerned residents, impressed by The Stranger’s skills in murdering the three men in the barbershop, decide to hire him to protect them. After some brief reluctance, he accepts, on the proviso that he can have whatever he wants in the town. From this point the tone lightness as he gets a merry band of men together and goes from shop to shop being a jerk and getting free stuff. He also promotes Mordecai, a local dwarf, to the dual role of mayor and sheriff. After such a strong, if imperfect, start which traded in the bleakness, grit and lawlessness of the West, this all feels like a bit of a jaunt. I don’t particularly like my Clint Eastwood quippy. James Bond makes quips, not Clint. It is just all a bit silly.
Then, just abruptly as the first shift, the film gets bleak again. Eastwood forces himself onto another woman (the treatment of women by the film was a little troubling overall) and then paints the town literally red and renames it hell so he can exact his revenge on the three men riding into town. Who it is revealed through the film have done something in their past to very much wrong The Stranger. It is no spoiler to say he has his revenge too. The hellacious image of The Stranger brutally whipping a man to death, surrounded by huge flickering flames is surely the film’s defining image. It is also one that does not really match up with so much that has preceded it though.
The uneven tone and questionable attitude to the treatment of women helped to make High Plains Drifter not that enjoyable for me. Which is a shame, because I like Eastwood as a director and the early parts of this set it up to be something far better.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught