The LAMB does this fun little blogathon thingy called the LAMBs in the Director’s Chair, in which a specific director is put under the spotlight and any LAMB member can contribute in any way they see fit as long is it has to do with the directors overall work in film or a specific movie helmed. When they announced that the fifth director for the Directors Chair event was going to be Clint Eastwood, I was very ecstatic to say the least. Eastwood is a director that I adore and his filmography is filled with so many great movies, but there is only one that came immediately to mind when I thought about my own contribution.
1973’s High Plains Drifter is set in the town of Lago, and the townsfolk have a whole lot to worry about. They suffer from a dark past that haunts them for their greedy ways, and there’s a trio of gunslingers that are to be released from prison and will be looking to take revenge on the town that betrayed them and had them sent to jail. In rides a mysterious gunslinger only known as The Stranger (Eastwood), who seems to be just stopping by for a drink and some R&R.
The Stranger immediately makes his presences known when he is confronted by a couple of would be tough guys, whom he turns into human targets after they try to attack him. Seeing an opportunity to keep the three imprisoned gunslingers from coming back to seek vengeance on the town that did them wrong, the people of Lago talk The Stranger into helping them out with the issue. The Stranger, claiming not to be a gunfighter, only agrees when the townsfolk offer him anything he wants during his stay in Lago – all the food, drink, room and board, anything he wants and all for free.
Eastwood’s character is the definition of anti-hero and it comes across as clear as day in the matter of a few minutes. You root for him right from the get go when he is confronted by the men in the opening moments, but in the blink of an eye, he has his way with a woman in a way that shows he isn’t necessarily a good guy at all and he clearly has no concern for rules. His character goes much deeper than that though - the town does have a history involving a Marshal that was whipped to death by the three imprisoned gunslingers due to the people of Lago and their greed. For some reason The Stranger seems to be plagued, or connected to this tragic event, but why exactly is this?
High Plains Drifter is certainly a Western…on the surface, but it also has many elements of a supernatural Thriller in many ways. Eastwood was unsurprisingly influenced by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, two directors he famously worked with on films very different from one another. The influence shows greatly in High Plains in that it is a Western in the classic sense, but the epic presence found in a Leone film is traded for what I would consider a gritty urban styled thriller more along the lines of Dirty Harry in how it is shot and the feel of the film. It is almost a meeting of the two genres and it makes for an interesting combination and one that works very well.
One big stand out that shows the two genre styles come together, is the superb music in the film done by Dee Barton. Right as the movie opens, you get a great and almost traditional Western tune that steers you to think that the movie will be a straight up Western. As the movie goes along and especially when the whipped to death Marshal first shows up (in the form of a dream via The Stranger), the music becomes very ominous and eerie. Even as High Plains movies along, the music gets even more dark and brooding, as does the movie itself and it almost reminds me of something that you might hear from Goblin even.
Eastwood still being somewhat green as a filmmaker at this time does a fantastic job with High Plains Drifter and the film looks great on all technical levels. Some of the best stuff in the film is the long panning shots of The Stranger as he’s walking or on horseback, going slowly from one place to another as the camera follows him patiently. As the inhabitants of Lago look on in curiosity, the only sound you hear is that of his spurs. Fantastic stuff. The entire ending is great looking too, with the set design and the how the town of Lago is turned into the town of Hell with a fresh coat of red paint – just for the purpose of putting fear into the hearts of the three bandits on their way to torture the townsfolk.
Eastwood is perfect as The Stranger and he does a great job portraying a character that would seem to be just another gunslinger, to his transformation to something more supernatural. In whatever form it is, whether it is a brother, the soul of the Marshal that was killed, The Crow, or whatever, The Stranger is clearly one that is sent to take vengeance on more than the three gunslingers that murdered the Marshal. He is awful and despicable to the people of Lago, but they deserve it and if he were sent to avenge the death of the slain Marshal, then he would have to make the townsfolk suffer as well since they are the ones responsible in the first place. And that plays into the end of the film heavily as he lets things unfold in a certain way, instead of taking care of it right away…he wants the town to pay for what they have done before he steps in.
High Plains Drifter is one of the best and most original takes on the Western genre and Eastwood really shows his mastery early in this one by going with something that is a little different stylistically. The ambiguity of what The Stranger is makes this a fascinating film and giving it a supernatural feel is a bold choice that pays off. I can only highly recommend this film and the slight supernatural aspect, mixed with the grittiness of the movie, makes it something that may be enjoyed by fans of horror as well as fans of Westerns.