|High Plains Drifter|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Clint Eastwood|
|Produced by||Robert Daley|
|Written by||Ernest Tidyman|
|Music by||Dee Barton|
|Edited by||Ferris Webster|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$15.7 million |
High Plains Drifter is a 1973 American Western film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, written by Ernest Tidyman, and produced by Robert Daley for Malpaso Company and Universal Pictures. Eastwood plays a mysterious, prepotent stranger, meting out justice in a corrupt frontier mining town. The film was influenced by the work of Eastwood's two major collaborators, film directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The film was shot on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. Dee Barton wrote the film score. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of its initial release and remains popular today, holding a score of 96% at the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.
An unnamed man rides out of the desert into the isolated mining town of Lago in the American Old West. Three men follow him into the saloon, taunting him, then follow him to the barbershop. When they challenge him, he kills all three with little effort. Townswoman Callie Travers deliberately bumps into him in the street, knocks his cigar from his mouth, and loudly insults him. He drags her into the livery stable and rapes her. That night, in his hotel room, the Stranger dreams of a man being brutally whipped. The dream morphs into a flashback in which Jim Duncan, a federal marshal, is whipped to death in front of the hotel by outlaws Stacey Bridges and brothers Dan and Cole Carlin as the citizens look on.
The next day, Sheriff Sam Shaw approaches the Stranger and offers him the job previously held by the men he killed: defending the town from Bridges and the Carlins, who are about to be released from jail. He declines. Shaw, in desperation, offers him anything he wants in return. The Stranger learns that the townspeople were complicit in Duncan's murder; they hired the outlaws to kill him after he discovered that the town's only source of income, the mine, was on government land. They then double-crossed the hired murderers and turned them in. Upon learning this, the Stranger accepts the job and takes full advantage of the deal. He appoints barbershop employee Mordecai as sheriff and mayor, and provides an Indian and his children with supplies at the shopkeeper's expense. He orders the hotel owner and his guests to vacate the premises, leaving him its sole occupant. The hotel owner, Lewis Belding, and his wife Sarah, object. He drags Sarah, kicking and screaming, into her bedroom. The next morning, while discussing the imprisoned murderers, Sarah tells the Stranger that Duncan cannot rest in peace because he is buried in an unmarked grave outside of town.
The Stranger instructs the townspeople in defensive tactics, but they lack the competence for the job. He also orders that every building in town be painted blood red. Then, without explanation, he mounts his horse and rides out of town, pausing to replace "Lago" on the town sign with "Hell". Meanwhile, Bridges and the Carlins have been released from prison and are heading to Lago. The Stranger harasses them with dynamite and long-range rifle fire, leaving them to ponder the identity of their attacker. Returning to Lago, the Stranger inspects the preparations--the entire town painted red, townsmen with rifles stationed on rooftops, picnic tables laden with food and drink, and a big "WELCOME" banner overhead--then he remounts and departs again.
The Bridges gang arrives and easily overcomes the inept resistance of the townspeople. Bridges shoots several of the civic leaders who double-crossed them. By nightfall the town is in flames, and the terrified citizens are huddled in the saloon with the Bridges gang, who taunt them. A sound is heard in the street; Cole Carlin, while standing by the entrance to the saloon, is caught by a whip around the throat, dragged outside and everyone listens as he is whipped to death. Dan Carlin is then found dead too, hanging from another whip. As Bridges investigates, the Stranger appears, beats Bridges to the draw, and kills him.
On his way out of town the following morning, the Stranger pauses at the cemetery as Mordecai is finishing a new grave marker. "I never did know your name", Mordecai says. "Yes, you do", the Stranger replies. As he rides past a bewildered Mordecai into the desert, the writing on the new headstone is revealed: Marshal Jim Duncan--Rest in Peace.
Eastwood reportedly liked the offbeat quality of the film's original nine-page proposal, and approached Universal with the idea of directing it. Under a joint production between Malpaso and Universal, the original screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, who had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The French Connection. Tidyman's screenplay was inspired by the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964, which eyewitnesses reportedly stood by and watched. Holes in the plot were filled in with black humor and allegory, influenced by Sergio Leone. An uncredited rewrite of the script was provided by Dean Riesner, screenwriter of other Eastwood projects.
Universal wanted Eastwood to shoot the feature on its back lot, but Eastwood opted instead to film on location. After scouting locations alone in a pickup truck in Oregon, Nevada and California, he settled on the "highly photogenic" Mono Lake area. Over 50 technicians and construction workers built an entire town--14 houses, a church, and a two-story hotel--in 18 days, using 150,000 feet of timber. Complete buildings, rather than facades, were built, so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on the site. Additional scenes were filmed at Reno, Nevada's Winnemucca Lake and California's Inyo National Forest. The film was completed in six weeks, two days ahead of schedule, and under budget.
The character of Marshal Duncan was played by Buddy Van Horn, Eastwood's long-time stunt double, to suggest that he and the Stranger could be the same person. In an interview, Eastwood said that earlier versions of the script made the Stranger the dead marshal's brother. He favored a less explicit and more supernatural interpretation, and excised the reference. The Italian, Spanish, French and German dubbings restored it. "It's just an allegory," he said, "a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town's conscience to bear. There's always retribution for your deeds." The graveyard set featured in the film's final scene included tombstones inscribed "Sergio Leone" and "Don Siegel" as a humorous tribute to the two influential directors.
Universal released the R-rated High Plains Drifter in the United States in April 1973, and the film eventually grossed $15.7 million domestically, ultimately making it the sixth-highest grossing Western in North America in the decade of the 1970s and the 20th highest-grossing film released in 1973. The film was well received by many critics, and rates 96% positive on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "part ghost story, part revenge Western, more than a little silly, and often quite entertaining in a way that may make you wonder if you lost your good sense."Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 3 stars out of 4 and wrote, "What does work very well indeed is Eastwood's presence, personal style, and direction. Tho his laconic sense of humor often drags out the pacing of the movie, Eastwood uses his camera with intelligence and flair." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety calld it "a nervously humorous, self-conscious near satire on the prototype Clint Eastwood formula of the avenging mysterious stranger. Ernest Tidyman's script has some raw violence for the kinks, some dumb humor for audience relief, and lots of arch characterizations befitting the serio-comic-strip nature of the plot."Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a stylized, allegorical western of much chillingly paranoid atmosphere and considerable sardonic humor that confirms Eastwood's directorial flair. It's also a pretty violent business that won't disappoint the millions who flocked to the Leone westerns." Tom Zito of The Washington Post called it "an enjoyable, well-constructed work that suffers only from a slightly tedious tone that makes the film seem longer than its 105 minutes."
The film had its share of detractors. A number of critics thought Eastwood's directing derivative; Arthur Knight in Saturday Review remarked that Eastwood had "absorbed the approaches of Siegel and Leone and fused them with his own paranoid vision of society".Jon Landau of Rolling Stone concurred, noting "thematic shallowness" and "verbal archness"; but he expressed approval of the dramatic scenery and cinematography.Nigel Andrews of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "after Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter emerges as a disappointingly sterile exercise in style, suggesting that the first thing Eastwood should do as a director is forget the lessons he has learned from other film-makers and start to forge a convincing style of his own."John Wayne criticized the film's iconoclastic approach; in a letter to Eastwood, he wrote, "That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country."