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Into town the stranger rode,
No history or name.
Revenge was due, a debt was owed,
And yet no other came.
All in town their worry showed
But covered up their shame,
Remembering the episode
For which they were to blame.
The still and sullen streets forebode
A secret, savage aim.
Into town the stranger rode,
And justice did the same.

MPAA rating: R

For someone who loves movies, I do seem to have some glaring blind spots when it comes to expanding my repertoire. I’m a stranger to Tarantino and zombie films (though I don’t really care to be acquainted), and I’ve just recently begun exploring the most recent James Bond, Oliver Stone, and classic Hitchcock. One actor/director I know more by reputation than experience is Clint Eastwood. High Plains Drifter is actually the first western I’ve seen of his, and it confirmed why he is such a commanding screen presence.

Drawing from Eastwood’s experience with spaghetti westerns, High Plains Drifter also borrows certain elements from the likes of Seven Samurai and High Noon. Like Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificent Seven, the small desert town of Lago, named for the oddly located lake bordering it, lives in fear of the return of vengeful bandits and looks to a skilled stranger for salvation. Like High Noon, the film builds to the inevitable showdown between the lone defender and the encroaching enemy. A key question that sets High Plains Drifter apart, though, is “Is the town worth saving?” The townspeople in Seven Samurai and High Noon were prone to ingratitude and fear, but the settlers of Lago sit upon a cruel secret that takes much of the sympathy out of their plight.

Eastwood has played many a tough guy for the ages, not least of which is the nameless Stranger who rides into town without a word, backed by Dee Barton’s spookily atmospheric score. When the Stranger proves his grit and his aim by killing Lago’s supposed defenders, the sheriff begs him to protect them, promising him anything he wants in return. Despite his distaste for the town, the Stranger agrees and proceeds to take full advantage of the open-ended offer, ordering free drinks, the entire hotel to himself, and other unreasonable demands that seem meant to punish the town as a whole. The film walks a fine line between the Stranger’s abuse and how deserving the town may be of it, crossing the line on occasion when he freely rapes two women, who unrealistically don’t seem to mind too much after the fact. Except for that needless exploitation, Eastwood’s Stranger proves to be a compellingly mysterious anti-hero, whose intentions for the town itself remain uncertain right to the end. When asked what comes after the showdown, he defiantly replies, “Then you live with it.”

Far from Eastwood’s first rodeo, High Plains Drifter is a brazen western that questions the decency of frontier folk. Aside from Eastwood, Billy Curtis plays his closest ally, the diminutive Mordecai who has also felt the town’s malice, and Richard Bull appears as a shopkeeper, a year before he played the owner of Oleson’s Mercantile on Little House on the Prairie. I can’t say how High Plains Drifter compares with Eastwood’s other westerns (yet), but it’s a somewhat haunting entry in the western genre that gives a whole new meaning to “painting the town red.”

Best line: (the Stranger, after an overdue assault from his rape victim) “Wonder what took her so long to get mad?”


Rank: List Runner-Up


© 2016 S. G. Liput
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