High Plains Drifter
|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|
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.
A mysterious stranger rides into the isolated mining town of Lago, hounded by three men who follow him into the saloon and then the barbershop before he effortlessly kills all three when they threaten him. The Stranger then rapes attractive townswoman Callie Travers in a livery stable for belittling him after deliberately bumping into him on the street, renting a room at the hotel run by Lewis Belding. The next day, after having a dream of a man brutally whipped to death, the Stranger is approached by Sheriff Sam Shaw with an offer to take the job previously held by the men he killed: defending the town from Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers Dan and Cole, the three killers from the Stranger's dream who murdered the town marshal Jim Duncan. Shaw explains they are about to be released from territorial jail where they carried out a year-long sentence for apparently stealing gold from the mining company, the gunfighters intending to exact revenge on the town. The Stranger declines the job until Shaw tells him he can have anything he wants, taking full advantage of the deal by indulging in the town's goods and services while appointing barbershop employee Mordecai as sheriff and mayor.
The Stranger then instructs the townspeople in defensive tactics despite their lack of skill or courage, all while having Belding's barn dismantled to make picnic benches and vacating the other guests while he remains the hotel's sole client. Morgan Allen feels they are being exploited and leads an ambush on the Stranger in the hotel, only for his group to be killed while he rides off after being mortally shot. With the hotel damaged in the scuffle, and Belding inadvertently divulging his complicity in the attack, the Stranger drags Belding's wife Sarah into the owner's bedroom and they sleep together. Despite her initial disdain, Sarah grew to care for the Stranger after willfully sleeping with him and tells him that Duncan could not rest as he is buried in an unmarked grave outside of town. It is ultimately revealed that Duncan's death was arranged by most of the townsfolk to conceal the truth of their mine being on federal property, double-crossing the outlaws they hired to murder the marshal.
Relaying orders to have the entire town painted red with "HELL" painted on the "LAGO" sign, the Stranger rides after Morgan as he was killed by Stacey and the Carlins. The Stranger harasses the outlaws with dynamite and long-range rifle fire, leaving them to ponder their attacker's identity. Returning to Lago, the Stranger inspects the preparations before riding off just as Bridges gang arrives and easily overwhelms the townsfolk's resistance. By night fall, the town is in flames with several civic leaders killed while the remaining citizens are huddled in the saloon. The Stranger then makes his move and kills the gunfighters one by one: Whipping Cole to death, hanging Dan with another whip, and shooting Bridges. Mordecai kills Belding before he can shoot the Stranger in the back immediately after. 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.
- Clint Eastwood as The Stranger
- Verna Bloom as Sarah Belding
- Mariana Hill as Callie Travers
- Billy Curtis as Mordecai
- Mitchell Ryan as Dave Drake
- Jack Ging as Morgan Allen
- Stefan Gierasch as Mayor Jason Hobart
- Ted Hartley as Lewis Belding
- Geoffrey Lewis as Stacey Bridges, outlaw
- Dan Vadis as Dan Carlin, outlaw
- Anthony James as Cole Carlin, outlaw
- Walter Barnes as Sheriff Sam Shaw
- Paul Brinegar as Lutie Naylor
- Richard Bull as Asa Goodwin
- Robert Donner as Preacher
- John Hillerman as Bootmaker
- John Quade as Freight Wagon Operator
- Buddy Van Horn as Marshal Jim Duncan
- William O'Connell as the Barber
- James Gosa as Tommy Morris, outlaw
- Scott Walker as Billy Borders, outlaw
- Russ McCubbin as Fred Short, outlaw
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."
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