One of the most indelible images of the western is the sight of Clint Eastwood silently trotting into town while the simple townsfolk gawp at him while he fixes each and ever one of them with the patented squint of his. It’s a sight that not only encompasses an entire drama, but it also pretty much sums up Eastwood’s career in a nut shell, but with 1973’s High Planes Drifter, the man himself aimed to twist the established heroic conventions into something quietly insidious and thrillingly disturbing.
You see, usually when a poncho wearing Eastwood enters said town, he’s usually the stoic gun fighter who’s cast iron glare and dusty heart belies a righteous conscience while the townsfolk, while timid, are good, God-fearing folk who are in a bit of a lickle due to a roving gang or a ruthless landowner – but not this day. No, this day Eastwood takes these cliches and rides them straight into hell.
Seemingly riding right out of a heat shimmer, a Stranger makes his way into the small mining town of Lago and makes himself right at home despite the vast amounts of suspicious side-eyeing and curtain twitching his presence seemingly stirs up, however, things escalate in fairly short order when the stranger blows away three fellow gunfighters after their questioning him about his business gets out of hand. Now this causes something of a problem for the cowardly people of Lago, because due to their selfish and sniveling ways, they needed those previous gunslingers to see off a trio of criminals they double crossed after hiring them to bump off their old sheriff years earlier.
However, the idea is raised that maybe this new guy can be the one to protect them and so the sweaty mayor, the human booze-potato that’s the current sheriff and the other town founders make a deal with the stranger to protect them at any cost, thinking that they’ve just bought themselves a new saviour. However, the Stranger takes “at any cost” rather literally and starts making outlandish and lavish demands of the town under the pretence of protection that includes everything from the cheeky (handfuls of cigars, drink for everybody on the house) to downright bizarre like naming the dwarven town gopher Mordecai both the new sheriff and mayor and getting everyone to paint all the buildings in Lago bright red and rename the town Hell.
It soon becomes apparent that the Stranger doesn’t actually have the best interests of Lago at heart and this whole series of events is a way for him to get at the three criminals who seemingly bullwhipped him to death and the complicit town people who stood by and watched. But if all that is true, then that would make the Stranger Sheriff Jim Duncan wouldn’t it? But he’s dead, isn’t he?
High Plains Drifter seems to be the result of Clint Eastwood wanting to turn the established image of The Man With No Name on its head in a style that’s as uncompromising as it is stylish while throwing in a implied ghost story while it goes about it’s grim business. Once all of Lago’s cards are on the table, it’s easy to see why this particular incarnation of Eastwood’s gunslinging persona acts in a way far colder than we’ve ever seen before – but it’s still a shock as the movie acts of revenge are cruel, drawn out and contains some startling sexual politics that noticably jar in comparison to such pictures such as Hang ‘Em High. You see, it’s heavily implied that the Stranger may be the ghost of the sheriff who was betrayed by the entire town for wanting to do the right thing (rides in and out of town in a heat shimmer, has no scars despite being beaten like damp laundry and no one seems to recognize him) and thus his revenge is similarly callous and inhuman in nature and most unlike anything that had been seen of Clint before. He cheats at gun fights by firing on men woefully unprepared to except that their next destination is a fucking pine box, he casually rapes a woman who insults him and he half-heartedly trains the quivering townsfolk to defend themselves clumsily from the oncoming attack with every intention of letting them get cut down in the initial assault – simply put, the Stranger is no hero and therefore shouldn’t be considered as one as he’s simply going about the business of his revenge with a level of cold detachment as he let’s the greedy folk of Lago ensure their own downfall.
This noticably un-Eastwood behavior is fascinating to watch and it even extends to the unsettling flashback where the three hired criminals gleefully whip him into oblivion that actually has Clint begging for help as he succumbs to the endless lashing, but it all adds to the coldly cruel streak of humor that runs through High Plains Drifter that’s as mean as a beaten dog. Watch as our “hero” bullies, gaslights, humiliates and sexually assaults his way through a group of people so spineless, they’ll happily let him have his way no matter the cost, as he saves their skin.
The supernatural element is downplayed to the point of being merely a suggestion, but when Eastwood the director wants to turn up the heat, he does so with a panache that’s visually stunning. The size of a blood red town Lago is a memorable one, as is the Stranger’s memorably eerie entrance and exit from the film as his literally vanished from sight as the ripples of heat emanate off the boiling sands, but the scene where revenge is finally taken against his trio of murderers is breathtaking as he lassos one clean out of the saloon into the inky, blackness of night only for him to whip the man to death while silhouetted against a raging inferno.
Some modern viewers may take umbrage with the deliberate pace (the Stranger is obviously relishing his complicated revenge, so why rush it?) and the incredibly mature themes at work here – especially our lead’s apparent disdain for the town’s women – may rankle, but this is a world where even our hero does bad, spiteful things to bad, spiteful people, with no interest whatsoever of redemption. What redemption could the Stranger possibly be looking for? He’s dead.
Ugly, mean and a flipping a rousing middle finger at conventions; High Plains Drifter swaggers into your life much like it’s cold blooded lead, takes care of business and then leaves without a word, leaving only stunned witnesses in its wake.
The Man With No Name? Try The Man With No Mercy…