High Plains Drifter (1973)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1973. . Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by , , . Film Editing by .

Clint Eastwood‘s second film as director was his first western in that capacity, his lead role reminiscent of his Man With No Name character and with a similar plot to his first Sergio Leone adventure.

He stars as The Stranger, who appears out of the waves of desert heat on horseback in the wild west town of Lago, which production designer Henry Bumstead quite humorously designs as more or less looking like a movie set placed in the middle of nowhere.

The Stranger is immediately given an unfriendly welcome by a few lowlives but he just as quickly dispatches all to their heavenly reward who would cross him, his skills with a pistol prompting the remaining townspeople to ask of him a great service: three bandits have just been released from prison and are on their way to Lago, and would he stay on and fight them when they come?

The townspeople offer him any reward that he wants, so the low-voiced hero goes about cutting a wide swathe through this tiny community to collect his fee, clearing out their general store, helping himself to the booze behind the bar and taking the local hotel entirely for himself and the women he brings to his bed.

As the bad guys come closer, The Stranger helps train the locals to fight and issues instructions for how to get the town ready, but a number of flashback sequences thrown in at key moments clue us in to the possibility that this story is more complicated than it at first seemed: is The Stranger there to help, or does he also have a bone to pick with Lago, and is the town getting ready to take on the bad guys or preparing a revenge scenario being made against it?

As always, Eastwood has as much fun celebrating the traditions of brutal masculinity in the cinema’s most macho-obsessed genre while also holding them up to a fair level of scrutiny: in a decade when plenty of films indulged in the cringeworthy habit of “just force yourself on her and she’ll eventually like it” tournaments of sexual aggression, Eastwood never tries to make himself anything other than a very glamorous villain, allowing the women he encounters to respond to their treatment without belittling their importance to the world of the story.

The light touch of supernatural suggestion won’t work for all viewers, but it’s a solid film that never feels as familiar as it truly is, with each stock character type inhabited by actors giving three dimensions to their roles (including a terrific as one of the bad guys) and a dazzling star performance by what would turn out to be among the most prolific auteurs of the next few decades.

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