283. High Plains Drifter (US 1972)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis
Music: Dee Barton (Frank Sinatra's mate - when he had a cold - "Hey, Sammy - have you seen that drunken bum Dee Barton anywhere?")
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman/Dean Riesman
Bit Parts: Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James
In one line: a mysterious stranger wreaks revenge on the townspeople who had colluded in the killing of their own marshal
A man rides into the town of Lago and kills three malevolent gunfighters. He retires to a hotel room and dreams of the murder of Marshal Jim Duncan. In the dream, the marshal is whipped to death by a small gang of criminals. The town people look on as he is publicly murdered and it is only the hotelier's wife who tries to help or shows any compassion. The stranger is asked to protect the town from another gang; he agrees, but only under certain conditions. The stranger makes Mordecai, a dwarf, the town's sheriff and mayor. He makes the town people paint all their buildings red and paints the word 'Hell' over the word 'Lago' on a sign at the edge of the town. The scene is set for a battle with the three men who killed Marshal Duncan, but many more will be punished for their earlier complicity.
Having recently witnessed (and that's the best verb I can think of) Gran Torino, Clint's final film (surely) as star as well as director, I thought it might be better to remember one of his better ones.
High Plains Drifter is a miserable, nasty piece of work. Clint, as either the ghost or brother of the murdered sheriff Frank Duncan, returns to Lago and takes grisly revenge on the 'townsfolk'. Duncan's murderers are systematically tracked down and killed, and the woman who colluded in his murder is raped as her punishment. (Indeed).
The town's people are humiliated and their town is painted red as a weird punishment for their refusal to help their dying sheriff. Mysterious stranger Clint appoints the town's rejects and misfits to run Lago as a further reminder of the 'good citizens' sins.
High Plains Drifter has many inspirations. Eastwood borrows from the westerns of his two mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and there are elements of the both the New and Old Testaments (Eastwood's character is both a Christ-figure and the Angel of Death), and there are allusions to the Pied Piper and Fred Zinnemann's High Noon. The film itself clearly inspired Eastwood's own Pale Rider, as well as Paul Verhoeven's Robocop and any number of revenge movies over the years. A strange, but very obvious influence on the narrative is JB Priestley's play An Inspector Calls.
Eastwood's Man With No Name persona is given a literal outing here.
The violence in HPD is both visceral and shocking. How we as an audience are so supposed to collude in the 'justice' of the rape is beyond my understanding and is without the worst element of the film. The whip murder of Marshall Duncan is particularly gruesome, and weirdo actor Anthony James provides a legendary black comedy/non sequitur moment when, after poking the marshal's body with a stick, he comes to the epic conclusion:
"Hmmm....sure had a lot of blood left in him."
Anthony James: weirdo
The Stranger rides in and out of town and visibility via a desert heat haze, and on his way out he passes a graveyard in which the gravestones of 'Sergio Leone' and 'Don Siegel' can just about be made out.
HPD is a fairly nihilistic and unpleasant film, but it's miles better than the Scooby Doo-like plotting, acting and general rubbishness of Gran Torino.
Mind you, Clint was very, very old when he made Gran Torino, so he can be forgiven lots.
And he's still nails.
And he'd still beat me in a fight.
And he's seventy fucking nine.