Clint Eastwood’s first western (as director), High Plains Drifter, remains one of his best films, although, at the time of release in 1973 critics wrote it off as him riffing on Sergio Leone and his other collaborator Don Siegel. Without doubt both artists would have a huge impact on Eastwood’s growing style as a filmmaker. His forays into directing were not the vanity of a superstar as we now know today. Eastwood is acknowledged for his classical style and complex characters. The student became a master of the medium himself. He would later go on to dedicate his 1992 masterpiece, Unforgiven, to Leone and Siegel. In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood chose a more humorous homage by having the names of the filmmakers etched on crosses in the graveyard.
High Plains Drifter was written by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection) and noted for its chilly and very atmospheric cinematography by Bruce Surtees, who Eastwood would forge a close working relationship with until the mid 1980s. Surtees use of back-lighting gave the look of their westerns, specifically, a cold, eerie glow. It suited the material down to the ground and they’d go on to repeat it in 1985 with the film’s spiritual sequel Pale Rider.
A stranger one day rides into the lakeside town of Largo (how very Leone) and sets about disrupting the status quo by his presence. The stranger is haunted by dreams and we soon understand this is a revenge plot of sorts, but tinged, perhaps, with a supernatural edge.
It is famous for the surreal third act when the Stranger orders the townsfolk to paint the town red – literally. A banner reading ‘Welcome Home, Boys’ hangs above the street confusing the villains and allowing them to fall into the stranger’s trap.
It’s quite obvious this one-sheet apes certain stylistic designs from the spaghetti western era, which was definitely on its way out by 1973, if not dead. It’s arty and shows off the mean and moody persona of Clint Eastwood. The use of coloured panels in the bottom evokes the silent era too and there’s actually a nice trompe-l’œil effect with the whip and the man’s leg coming out of the frame.
It certainly plays up Eastwood’s screen image as a cowboy with a penchant for violence; a man who talks with his six-shooter. What marks out High Plains Drifter is the revenge plot – it’s got nothing to do with ‘a fistful of dollars’. It works as a sort of inversion of Hang ‘Em High in which a man becomes a lawman to bring to justice the baddies that tried to lynch him. Here we get a former lawman returning (perhaps from beyond the grave) to settle a score.
Eastwood’s westerns, in a way, would become morality tales and rather bleak explorations of the American myth of the old west. Unforgiven cements this view in which we’ve only cold-blooded killers for company and a hero who has murdered women and children in the past.
“A drifter riding out of the west. You know him as Clint Eastwood. The citizens of Largo didn’t know him at all.” The voiceover for this trailer starts out with a bit of postmodern posturing which acknowledges the star’s appeal as a cowboy and appears not to give a damn he’s playing a character. It’s just Clint doing what he does best.
This is definitely cut to evoke memories of the Leone films but also shows off Bruce Surtees photography very well. There’s also heavy inference to ‘the Man with No Name’ when several characters ask who this stranger is. In the movie it is suggested the man is a sheriff coming back from beyond the grave to have his revenge. In the final shot of the picture the man rides out into the mythic land and seemingly disappears into it. This lends High Plains Drifter a frisson of the supernatural.
The trailer highlights pretty much everything you’d want from an Eastwood oater. The final tagline as the stranger shoots towards the screen (a homage to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) “Aim to see it!” further promises the viewer a grand old time at the flickers.