The 1970s was an important decade for Clint Eastwood; in a remarkably prolific run reminiscent of the classic Hollywood studio masters, the man starred in 15 films in 10 years, directing 6 of them himself. There’s a clear trajectory charting Eastwood’s increasing confidence as a filmmaker, as well as his ascendance to bona fide superstar actor. By 1976, Eastwood was so sure of his own skills and working methods (and so important to the studios he worked for as a profit center) that he could fire an acclaimed director like Philip Kaufman from The Outlaw Josey Wales. If Wales is to this day considered a high water mark in Eastwood’s oeuvre, then High Plains Drifter remains a curious anomaly, a pitch-black anti-Western that casts Eastwood as a vengeful spirit in a horror-inflected portrait of American rot.
Sandwiched between Joe Kidd and Wales, both of which critique American history and the Western mythos in their own ways, Drifter is unique in its apocalyptic fury, a mode that Eastwood would not return to until the ending of Unforgiven, nearly 20 years later. Playing a self-conscious variation on his own “Man With No Name” persona, here Eastwood is a complete enigma; neither the film nor the character ever articulate who he is, or even his motives, an ambiguity that Eastwood reportedly liked and instructed others to maintain. In the isolated, rundown town of Lago, the local merchant class makes their money by milking a nearby mine that is actually owned by the federal government. To keep prying eyes away from their illicit wares, the locals hire a trio of killers to maintain martial law. When the hired guns get out of hand and kill the town sheriff, the townsfolk double-cross them and turn them over to the law. But now the killers have been set free, and they are returning to the town to exact revenge. Into the midst of this chaos rides Eastwood’s enigmatic drifter, and within minutes of arriving in Lago, he shoots several men while getting a shave and then rapes a woman (a vicious act that Eastwood would later publicly regret portraying). Cowed, the fearful townsfolk hire the drifter to protect them from the inevitable attack by the bandits. The Stranger proceeds to take advantage of all the town has to offer, and in the film’s most striking scene, has the residents paint the entire place red and rename it “Hell.” In a double-cross of his own, he then abandons the town, leaving most of the residents to be killed by the bandits. The drifter does return, making quick work of the killers, and then leaves again, disappearing over the horizon like a specter abandoning its corporeal state. Is he the devil, come to make mankind pay for their venality? Eastwood would later admit that the screenplay specified that he was to be the brother of the murdered sheriff, but the deliberate ambiguity, plus a series of woozy, foggy flashbacks, adds a dream-like ambiance to the proceedings.
In his essential book The Dream Life — its paperback cover graced by an extreme close-up of Eastwood brandishing his .44 Magnum directly at the reader’s face — J. Hoberman suggests that Eastwood “rides back into the twilight zone, disappearing off screen in precisely the same manner of Blowup’s photographer.” Leave it to Hoberman to find echoes of Antonioni in Eastwood, although it’s not entirely off the mark. High Plains Drifter has some of the inflections of an art film, with a minimalist (even by his own standards) Eastwood performance and spare, barren production design. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees is surely one of the great unheralded craftsmen of the cinema, absolutely a rival for Gordon Willis’ “prince of darkness” reputation. In Surtees’ hands, the landscape is a mix of oranges and browns that look like rust and dried-up blood, and his expressionistic handling of deep, recessed shadows only increases the feeling of being trapped in a waking nightmare. Coming only a few years after the Nouvelle Vague-inspired Bonnie and Clyde and the vaguely avant-garde Easy Rider, both aggressively violent capstones to the turbulent ’60s and both huge mainstream hits, High Plains Drifter is as “artsy” as Eastwood would ever get. Hoberman declares High Plains Drifter the pinnacle of the “Nixon Western” in Make My Day, although mapping any specific ideological baggage to Eastwood is always a tricky proposition; indeed, there has perhaps never been so successful a filmmaker who so adamantly fought against the tenor of their own time quite so vehemently as Eastwood. But there was, one might say, something in the air. With a screenplay credited to Shaft and The French Connection’s Ernest Tidyman, there might very well have been more implicit social commentary than a filmmaker like Eastwood would care to admit or allow to be realized. Whatever the case, High Plains Drifter remains one of his most chilling films, with bits and pieces of ideas that would make their way into later projects like Pale Rider or the aforementioned Unforgiven, but never in such a blatantly disturbing manner. It’s another fascinating detour in a career filled with them, and further evidence that Eastwood has always been much more than Dirty Harry Callahan.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.