Shortly after the film's release, Clint Eastwood wrote to John Wayne, suggesting that they make a western together. Wayne sent back an angry letter in reply, in which he denounced this film for its violence and revisionist portrayal of the Old West. Eastwood did not bother to answer his criticisms, and consequently they did not work together.
Universal Pictures wanted the film to be shot on the studio lot. Instead, Clint Eastwood had a whole town built in the desert near Mono Lake in the California Sierras. Many of the buildings were complete and three-dimensional, so that interiors could be shot on location.
The character of Marshal Duncan was played by stuntman Buddy Van Horn, a long-time stunt coordinator for Clint Eastwood, in order to create some ambiguity over whether he and The Stranger are one and the same.
The town of Lago was built 300 miles away from Hollywood. A 46-man crew of technicians and 10 laborers worked 10-hours a day for 18 days constructing 14 houses and a two-story hotel. They were burned down at the film's completion.
During an interview on Inside the Actors Studio (1994), Clint Eastwood commented that earlier versions of the script made The Stranger the dead marshal's brother. He favoured a less explicit and more supernatural interpretation and excised the reference. Although the Italian, Spanish, French and German dubbings retain it.
Clint Eastwood scouted the locations himself while driving a pickup truck through Oregon, Nevada and California. He chose the shores of Mono Lake because he considered the area highly photogenic. Additional scenes were filmed at Reno, Nevada's Winnemucca Lake and California's Inyo National Forest.
The strange colors make the town of Lago look different throughout the day scenes. Clint Eastwood supplemented this with eerie music, idiosyncratic photography as well as a weird dream sequence all adding to the supernatural atmosphere of the movie.
Controversial in its day but still a commercial hit, High Plains Drifter (1973) is listed in the Motion Picture Guide as one of the best Westerns of the 1970s. However, some critics thought Eastwood's direction was too derivative of his mentor Don Siegel and the works of Sergio Leone.
Any holes in the plot were filled with black humour and allegory to Sergio Leone. Eastwood thought the allegory of the film was "a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and someone comes back and calls the town's conscience to bear. There's always retribution for your deeds."
The Stranger is similar to The Man With No Name persona familiar to Clint Eastwood's Spaghetti Westerns, and they even wear a similar hat. The character in the film has no personal name and is only referred to in the billing as The Stranger.
The Bible verse on the wall of the church is Isaiah 53:3-4 which reads, "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted"
A possible alternate ending would had seen The Stranger, after riding away back into the desert wilderness and saying goodbye to Mordecai, confused and appears to be suffering from memory loss and doesn't remember arriving or leaving Lago and rides on to points unknown. That ending would had indicated that The Stranger had been possessed by the ghost of Marshal Jim Duncan and why The Stranger doesn't remember Lago, Mordecai, Callie Travers, the story of Marshal Duncan's murder or anything and Duncan's spirit has left his body and is now at peace, now his death has been avenged.
One of two occasions where a Dirty Harry sequel and a western directed by Clint Eastwood were released the same year. This movie was released in the summer of 1973 with the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force (1973) released that winter. Three years later, the Clint Eastwood western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was released in the summer with the Dirty Harry sequel The Enforcer (1976) released that winter.
The scene when Clint Eastwood lights a stick of dynamite on fire with his cigar is an homage to his spaghetti westerns from director Sergio Leone where he lights dynamite and cannons on fire with his cigar or cigarette. Another homage to his Man With No Name trilogy is when he shoots hats off people's heads.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
He's the devil version of Jim Duncan. Here's proof: 1. He has no name and towards the end when the midget sheriff/mayor says he doesn't know his name, the stranger replies, "Yes you do." He rides off and vanishes. Before vanishing, the camera pans to the gravestone that says "Here Lies Jim Duncan" which was just carved by Mordecai the midget before the stranger took off. One of the characters even said a few scenes earlier, "They say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind." 2. Why did he dream of a sheriff getting whipped to death if he wasn't there when the memory happened? Because it must be him getting whipped to death. In fact, the actor who played the sheriff in the flashbacks was Eastwood's stunt double Buddy Van Horn. 3. He paints the town red. This also symbolizes blood because of blood on the hands of the townspeople for standing around and doing nothing about the murder of their sheriff and that hell is a fiery red image, or anger which is red as an expression. Plus the devil is red anyhow. 4. The Belding's character says in a town meeting inside the church, "It couldn't be worse if the devil himself rode right into Lago." The next shot is of the stranger. 5. Why would the unmarked gravestone remain unmarked for all this time until after the stranger leaves when no one expected him to arrive? 6. Towards the end before Stacey Bridges is shot and killed, the stranger whispers, "Help Me!" Help Me!" How would he know the sheriff said those words the night he was killed? 7. When he whipped one of the cousins to death, how did he know the sheriff was also whipped? Also, the town was in flames in the background of the Stranger while the whipping happened. More of a sign that it's Hell. 8. The first time the stranger reacts to anything in Lago is the sound of a horse whip. He turns around looking scared. Suppose the whip reminded him how he died? 9. Another sign is when a woman says "You're the kind of man that makes people afraid and that's dangerous." Eastwood replies, "Well, it's what people don't know about themselves inside that make them afraid." The final sentence proves he's showing his inner demons by returning with a beard, hat and personality that he never had before. Sort of like Jekyll and Hyde. 10. Besides, when he's asked by the girl "Have you ever heard of a man named Jim Duncan?" He says, "I've heard a lot of things. Why?" No one mentioned Jim Duncan to him and when a dead sheriff was brought to his attention earlier, the name wasn't. She didn't mention that Jim was sheriff until after his response.
The ending hints on three possibilities on who The Stranger is. 1) The Stranger could be the ghost of Marshall Jim Duncan. 2) The Stranger could be Marshall Duncan's brother or 3) The Stranger just happens to have the same name as Marshall Duncan.
Has a surprising amount of similarities with the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact (1983) released a decade later. Not only were they both directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, but both movies have haunting flashbacks that are revenge stories. Harry gets beaten up by three men similar to the Marshall getting whipped by three men. Both movies have rape. The first time Eastwood uses his gun in the beginning of both movies, three characters are shot and killed. The climax in both movies take place where the flashbacks were with Eastwood killing the remaining villains at night. They're also the only two Clint Eastwood movies to costar actor Russ McCubbin. He plays Fred Short in High Plains Drifter (1973) and Eddie in Sudden Impact (1983).