Thursday 31 March 2011

Movie Review: High Plains Drifter (1973)

A mystical western aching to create a Sergio Leone vibe, High Plains Drifter is successful but only in patches.

A Stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides into the isolated mining town of Lago, and before long he shoots dead three abrasive gunmen and rapes the local whore, catching the attention of the town leaders. It turns out that Lago is a town on edge, anticipating the return of Stacy Bridges and the Carlin brothers, who are about to be released from prison. Bridges and the Carlins are expected to seek revenge on Lago for letting them rot in jail after they had done the town's dirty work by whipping to death Marshal Jim Duncan. Lago's businessmen and politicians wanted Duncan dead after he discovered that the town's mine actually sits on federal land.

Desperate for protection, Lago's leaders plead with the Stranger to protect them from the returning killers. He agrees after they offer him anything that he wants in return. The Stranger proceeds to insult, demean and humiliate everyone in the town, culminating in painting every building in Lago blood red and re-naming the place Hell. He easily dispatches Bridges and the Carlins when they finally arrive, and rides off as mysteriously as he arrived, leaving the town behind him in tatters. The more perceptive residents finally realize that the Stranger was the vengeful spirit of Jim Duncan.

High Plains Drifter is Eastwood's second movie as director and his first western. The Leone influences are most obvious in the long sequences without dialogue, The Strangers' extremely limited aptitude for talking and love for cigarillos, the levels of violence, and in portraying the main character as barely more tolerable than the evil-doers. The early rape scene is a departure from what is expected in most westerns, Spaghetti or otherwise, but establishes the lack of pure characters anywhere in Eastwood's canvass.

High Plains Drifter suffers from a weak supporting cast, the likes of Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill and the dwarf Billy Curtis not adding much depth to the town's characters. The music score by Dee Barton is unmemorable and adds little to the experience.

Much like The Stranger, High Plains Drifter rides in, makes some noise and leaves some memories, but then rides out again, and there is no clamouring for any kind of return performance.

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