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As the film opens on an Oklahoma farm during the depression, two simultaneous visitors literally hit the Wagoneer home: a ruinous dust storm and a convertible crazily driven by Red, the ... See full summary »
A Stranger rides into in the dusty mining town of Lago, where the townspeople are living in the shadow of a dark secret. After a shootout leaves the towns hired-gun protectors dead, the towns leaders petition the Stranger to stay and protect them from 3 ruthless outlaws who are soon to be released from prison. The 3 have their sites set on returning to Lago to wreak havoc and take care of some unfinished business. A series of events soon has the townspeople questioning whether siding with the Stranger was a wise idea as they quickly learn the price that they each must pay for his services. As the outlaws make their way back into Lago, they discover that the town is not exactly as they had left it, and waiting in the shadows is the Stranger, ready to expose the town's secret and serve up his own brand of justice. Written by
Obviously this was produced before the age of feminist political correctness. The anti-hero with no name--Clint Eastwood, of course, a throwback to his days making spaghetti westerns in Italy with Sergio Leone--comes riding tall in the saddle down into a valley with a mining town by a lake. (The movie was shot around the Mono Lake area of California.) Particularly effective in this unforgettable opening scene is the music sounding like the high whine of the wind off of the desert. This town would be "Lago" later to be renamed "Hell" by Eastwood's character who is identified in the titles as "The Stranger." The stranger really just wants a shave and a bath and something to drink and eat and place to lay his head for the night. What he gets is a bad time from some roughnecks and a woman (Callie Travers, played by Marianna Hill) who has attraction/avoidance feelings for him. He shoots the three guys and rapes the woman before the movie is twenty minutes old. What I mean by this not being politically correct is that, despite herself, she likes it! That sort of thing is not done in cinema these days. The idea that a woman might be turned on by being raped would not play before today's audiences, nor would a Hollywood producer make such a film.
I won't go any further into the plot but suffice it to say that Eastwood is just beginning to kick tail. It seems that everybody in town is cowardly and without the will to protect themselves from the bad guys, especially the three who just got out of jail and are headed their way. How Eastwood, who directed from a script by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection ; Shaft  etc.), handles the familiar revenge theme is interesting.
First it is no accident that Eastwood's protagonist is named "the Stranger." That is the English title of a famous novel by Albert Camus that surely influenced Eastwood. Camus's stranger is an existential anti-hero, a kind of benign sociopath who really doesn't feel anything for others except as they affect his life. But he is not particularly violent and just lives from one day to the next without any direction or goal. He just "exists." Eastwood's stranger does more than just exist. He takes action, and he is very good at it. Indeed, I can't recall a western movie in which a gunman could draw faster or shot straighter, or any movie hero who was less afraid of putting his life on the line. So, in a sense what Eastwood has added to Camus's stranger is Nietzsche's superman. And herein lies, I think, the underpinning of Eastwood's philosophy and his "message." Note that the people in the town to a man are cowardly. The only exception is Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) who, like the aforementioned Callie Travers, can't resist the stranger's forceful charm, and falls in love with him. This somehow inspires her to leave the corrupt town.
Yes, the town, like most of human society is corrupt. And yes the average man in the street is cowardly and without the will to defend himself. It is only the ubermensch, that rare breed celebrated in the works of the German philosopher, who has the skill, the strength and the will to bend events to his liking and to take on those who would use violence to achieve their ends.
So what Eastwood does here in his second directorial effort (following Play Misty for Me, 1971) is to diverge from Leone's formula. While there is some very funny and intentionally ridiculous dialogue in such films as, for example, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), or For a Few Dollars More (1965) or A Fistful of Dollars (1964), there is little that is funny, intentionally or otherwise in High Plains Drifter. Furthermore, whereas Leone just wanted to make a buck and saw that tough-minded heroes or anti-heroes involved in action-filled revenge plots was a good way to do it, Eastwood is interested in also making a philosophic (and perhaps political) statement. We are degenerate, we humans, he is saying, except for those rare individuals who take the law into their own hands, make their own rules, and through superior skill and bravery, make their own luck and create their own reality, as does his stranger.
In this film there is also an element of the supernatural, or so it would appear. The stranger "sees" in his head the whipping of a past sheriff of the town. Perhaps it comes from the mind of the dwarf Mordecai (very well played by Billy Curtis, by the way) who witnessed the tortured death while hiding under the saloon. At any rate, the stranger shows that he is just as handy with the whip himself as he is with his six-gun.
By all means see this for an early look at the work of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a director. You will not be bored I can assure you. But don't invite the girl friend over. If there was ever an anti-"chickflick," this is it.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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