High Plains Drifter - Looking into Hell
Somebody left the door open … and the wrong dogs came home
“Somebody left the door open … and the wrong dogs came home.”
Coming back to the States hadn’t been quite the boon that Western audiences had anticipated from Clint Eastwood. Pale Spaghetti imitations like Hang ‘em High and Joe Kidd tried to recoup the Dollars but really missed the mark, and the comedy-drama of Two Mules for Sister Sara was only sporadically entertaining as a mismatched comedy. It would take Eastwood, himself, to load those famous pistols and properly pull them. After his tenure with Sergio Leone he knew that the conventional horse opera, the heroic stanzas of John Wayne would never cut it anymore. Hell, Wayne had even turned Vietnam into a noble cavalry charge with The Green Berets. But then Eastwood wasn’t exactly out to re-imagine the Old West in the same manner as Sam Peckinpah either, although he knew that the quaint old traditions were long over the hills by now, and were probably carrying a couple of bullet-holes in the back. He wasn’t concerned with the passing of an era, the eradication of a way of life. He knew and understood the format and the nobility of the John Ford legend and the mythologizing of the material, and that wasn’t for him, either. He just didn’t believe in any of that stuff.
He loved Westerns, and had done since he’d been a kid. He just preferred them to be grittier and more psychologically relevant.Playing the Man with No Name had taught him that nobody could be trusted. That everyone, even those who were ostensibly the good guys, were only in it for themselves. An alliance was only as reliable as those who were pretending to keep their word. It was better to be a loner, counting and depending upon yourself and nobody else in this mostly lawless world. It is not that Eastwood saw more potential in this genre than the likes of Wayne, Ford and John Sturgis … it is just that he saw it from a darker, more realistic perspective.
A stranger riding a grey sorrel into the almost surreal lakeside town of Lago, up in the high country, immediately stakes a claim upon the place. Although not overtly looking for trouble, his sort always seems to attract it, and within minutes of getting himself a beer and arranging to have a shave, he’s killed three men. And not only that, he even forces himself upon a local woman who has the gumption to stand up to his warring ways. Shane, this guy is not. But the townsfolk see strength, skill and cunning in this man – traits that they, to a man, lack. And with the news that three vicious thugs are about to be released from the federal jail and will, in all likelihood, seek to return to the town in which they murdered the marshal to have some fun, they are going to need some help. And this mysterious stranger might just be the sort of man that can help them organize a special welcome home party for the trio.
Thus, accepting their dark and deadly proposition, the stranger commences training these pitiful weaklings in how to shoot moving targets. Given free reign, he also appoints the town midget, Mordecai (Billy Curtis, from The Wizard of Oz) as not only the new sheriff, but also the new mayor. As the homecoming draws ever nearer, he even has the town painted blood red and renamed Hell. It is all part of the joke. You’ve got a Munchkin and we’ve relocated to Hell. An Unholy Trinity are about to descend upon the place, and Clint’s savior could well be a zombie. He may be revitalizing the American Western, but he seems to be doing so with a wagonload of Spaghetti accoutrements. Even the whip, which features prevalently in the proceedings seems consciously religious in power and tone.
Although settling-in with his new duties and reveling in every opportunity to show these people up for the idiots and cowards they are, the stranger keeps having nightmarish flashbacks to a terrible whipping that he received on these very streets some time ago … and it comes as no surprise to discover that Clint’s stranger has, indeed, returned to Lago for some vengeance of his own.Famously, after watching the film, John Wayne once wrote to Eastwood and said that he wasn’t pleased about High Plains Drifter. He said “That isn’t what the West was all about That isn’t the American people who settled this country.”
And Eastwood simply replied, “You’re absolutely right.”But the star wasn’t about to regurgitate the themes of the past, nor the stale tropes of Hollywood’s oft-seen West. Like Horst Bucholz in John Sturgis’ The Magnificent Seven, he had metaphorically climbed the church tower and rang the bells of change upon a genre that even newborn babies knew inside-out. After Sturgis, and John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, Eastwood was the first major player who would instinctively make personal films out of a genre that he knew and loved and had seen get dragged through a mire of tedium. Only the year before he has made the proto-stalker thriller Play Misty For Me, a film that seemed both alien to his nature – Clint as a DJ – and yet perfectly suited to the climate that the superstar now found himself within – the media/celebrity culture in which his every move would be analysed and adulated. It was a bold, brave film and marked him out as somebody who knew the inner workings of movie-making and could move with the times whilst remaining staunchly individualistic and produce the stories that he wanted to without fear of being leaned-on by the studios. The films he would make over his subsequent and frequently outstanding career would be the more difficult and more unusual, the harder choices rather than the merely commercial. He would make comedies, dramas, war-films, thrillers, and, yes, more Westerns. He would never make anything, as a director, that didn’t have something of interest and worth. Even when playing knockabout with the likes of Any Which Way You Can or Space Cowboys, he was having fun and giving an amiable gathering of fellow actors and technicians the chance to spread out a little within frameworks that, on the surface, looked totally stereotypical. In short, he knew what the audience wanted, but he also knew how to give them that in a manner that also pleased himself and pushed a few boundaries as well. This was a rare gift even back in the early seventies, and it is even rarer now. Therefore, to be able to look back upon a time when someone of this one-off breed could get a project as unusual, as dark and as disturbing as this off the ground, and turn it into a crowd-and-critic pleasing success, is a rare pleasure indeed.
Eastwood, both as star and director, would not play by the accepted rules. In High Plains Drifter, he would murder and rape, and he would stunningly turn his back on the very people who were counting on him to lead them to safety. It was like the reverse of an Old Testament story, and it would cement that wry half-smile upon his face forevermore.The parallels to the political and military arenas that were haranguing the US at this time are looked at very sharply indeed. Clint’s Drifter could be seen as the American Special Forces coming in to train indigenous troops in counter-insurgency, yet he is also the subversive corrupter of the American Way and the defiler of pioneer dreams – the colonial invader hell-bent on collapsing the status quo and twisting a community to his own cynical ends. Like American Foreign Policy he is outwardly a benefactor, but there is no attempt made to disguise some rather unsavoury ulterior motives. He is the angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. In many ways, he is simply the extension of the desires, fears and morals of the townsfolk. The little girl in Pale Rider who prays for a miracle, for someone to come and save them is the obvious antithesis to this. In that, he was the Heaven (or Hell) sent savior, untethered for the purpose of redeeming others and leading them through the valley of the shadow of death. The people of Lago don’t even realize that they are in need of saving, spiritually speaking. Oh they know that they need some salvation from the bloodthirsty Stacey (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin Brothers, but that is just the nuts and bolts of their predicament. What they don’t understand is that their very souls are at stake. And how they deal with the Drifter is the greatest of their problems. They can treat him like a king – which, to an extent, they do – but this is all after the event. They still need to atone for the sins of the past. Sins they would rather not recall.
“What do we do afterwards?”they ask the Drifter.
“You live with it,”is his simple reply.
Other films and other novels would stake the same sort of claim when people would stand by and do nothing whilst a terrible crime was committed right before their very eyes. The Vietnam War and the race riots were booting the Summer of Love up the backside and the US Government could be seen as turning a blind eye to many circumstances that were within its power to thwart and correct. Eastwood and novelist/screenwriter Ernest Tidyman had the atrocities of the American Civil War and the Indian Conflict in their minds when they concocted the world in which the Drifter came down from the High Plains to sort out one small piece of retribution. He was entering an environment that was shorn of all innocence and whether or not you saw him as merely his own avenging angel or the smiting hand of a higher authority was irrelevant. He was here not just to punish the unjust, but to make a complete mockery of them. There is the impression that even come the finale and the Drifter heads off again, the townsfolk are just as frightened and humbled and confused as they were before. They’ve been taught a lesson … but, in essence, they have learned nothing except that they will never again hold the upper hand.
It is tempting to say that the Drifter actually has more in common with the three thugs, but then they don’t hide behind a veil or lie about their reasons. But they do, at least, share the purity of conviction. And they are all men of action and not just sheep who hide behind others.
Eastwood was using the locations, the geography, the clothing and the style of the Western to tell an almost Biblical story. A ghost story that was written in wrath ‘n’ thunder and sent down as a curse upon the unworthy and the self-righteous. He wasn’t the first to have done this, though. Sergio Garrone’s Django The Bastard also featured a main character who had actually returned from beyond the grave to avenge himself. But it is the way that Eastwood deals his hand that makes Drifter so unusual and altogether one of the stranger Westerns out there. Painting the town red – a literal joke – and renaming it Hell, then setting it ablaze for the grand finale is a startlingly direct touch. The Drifter is almost a reworking of Clarence the trainee angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, only his job is not to find the goodness in these people, it is to highlight their emotional stalling-points and expose their petty hang-ups and squabbles. Interestingly, he doesn’t actually have much of a run-in with the town’s preacher, possibly shunning him for the sham of a man that he really is. If the Drifter really has seen beyond the light, then the fact that he has bothered to come all this way back to exact his revenge seems to dictate that salvation on the other side is what you make of it. The Promised Land is not awarded to you on a plate. Whatever redemption you expect to gain, you have to earn it yourself … even if it means returning from the grave to finish the job.
Eastwood’s characters are nothing if not dutiful. Harry Callahan wouldn’t stop plugging bad guys even if you gave him a pair of silver wings. Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway would still spend more time saluting the Stars and Bars than he would the Almighty Eastwood’s ethics are richer than people think, but they all boil down to the simple fact that if you start something, then you damn well better finish it. John Wayne should actually have been proud of him.
Yet for all these high-faulting’ ideas, the film is also highly amusing. The Drifter’s exasperated face when he sees just lousy the townspeople are at shooting. His typically withered reactions to whenever a woman cusses him out and dresses him down. The wry sense of support and camaraderie he feels towards the unusual and the downtrodden - such as Mordecai, to whom he clearly feels a degree of humourous sympathy. Although this seems to have its antecedent even in Edgar Allen Poe in which the corrupt Lord Prospero feigns a loyal respect for his performing dwarf, Hop-Toad. But the flashback reveals something even more lasting between the two of them.With both Joe Kidd, badly based on the Elmore Leonard novel and High Plains Drifter, from a story and treatment from Tidyman, both fronting Eastwood’s Stateside claim on the dregs of the genre, it seems odd that the two projects should represent something of a reversal for their scribes. Leonard was a Western specialist, but he found more fame in contemporary crime tales, whilst Tidyman, the exact opposite, had thrived on crime capers, even creating the iconic blaxploitation character of John Shaft, and then penning the Oscar-nabbing screenplay for The French Connection. But in so doing he was shaping the classic antihero for the seventies Western as well. The hip coolness of Shaft was reflected in Clint’s laconic persona, and the ever-swirling corruption of petty-minded bureaucrats and diseased officials trying to cover-up dirty deeds and foul intentions was as rife for the destiny-laced and isolated enclave of Lago as it was for the officialdom of Harry Callahan’s San Francisco. Going a step further, you could swap the residents of Lago for the current US Administration and you would have had something akin to a medieval farce on the state of the nation. Thus, High Plains Drifter can be read on many different levels.
Tidyman’s notion was that these sorts of stories always started and ended so conventionally. The bad bad guys arrived and, by hook or by crook, the hero would derail and defeat them, restoring order and patching-up a few emotional rifts along the way. But what if the good guy, the sheriff, was killed right at the start? What would happen then? How would a township live with itself if it had allowed its one decent man to stand and fight and die without lifting a finger to help him? His initial outline was that Clint’s stranger in town would be the brother of the murdered sheriff, coming to Lago to seek revenge. But Eastwood saw something much more vital, enigmatic and haunting in that simple premise. Thus, removing all brotherly connection to the killed lawman, and not even naming the stranger in the credits, he had Tidyman’s screenplay imply that the Drifter was, in fact, a supernatural force out to avenge the death of the sheriff for far more personal reasons, albeit a ghostly spirit with a casual approach, a taste for beer and definite sense of sarcasm. This solution was what gave the film its unique status within a cluttered genre that had seen every iteration going, from historical battle reproduction to the Spaghettis to camp musicals to intense character studies to whimsical passing-of-an-age chronicles. It is giving nothing away, of course, to reinforce the idea that the Drifter is the returning spirit of the murdered sheriff, coming down from the celestial High Plains to exact some justified whupp-ass upon those who slew him, and upon those who stood idly by and watched it all happen. In fact, the knowledge of this ethereal presence only adds to the entertainment of the movie right from the word go, shading all that happens with a more intricate and intriguing complexity. But whereas the ode of the Pale Rider would become a campfire tale, the story of the High Plains Drifter would only be conveyed via nervous and guilty looks. You know that Lago would become even more haunted after the Drifter had moved on. Josey Wales is legendary even before the Civil War has ended, with all manner of folks happily adding to his roster of exploits. This is why Eastwood’s aged gunslinger William Munny makes that terrifying speech at the end of Unforgiven about killing anyone and anything. He is catching on to the tail-wind of these previous characters, adding his name to theirs, creating not so much his own mythology, but his own ghost.
Eastwood, with only his second directed feature, is remarkably assured and totally committed to bringing this weird town and the bizarre circumstances that have shaped it to life and … well … death. When Universal insisted that he film on their backlot, the star totally resisted. He wanted the town of Lago to become a character in its own right, so he set about finding a suitably eerie and authentic place, far from the familiarity of LA and its immediate desert tracts. Tidyman had written Lago as being a desert township, which would aid the sense of the angel coming out of the mirage to go about his business, but Eastwood, with an indelible image in his mind already, envisioned the hamlet situated next to a large body of water, which would already mark the place out as being unusual in the roster of Western locales. California’s Mono Lake, down in the Southwest, was immediately perfect for his desires. The huge open expanse afforded immense skies, far off ridges, a plateau and, of course, the wide blue lake that would make the place so distinctive.Yet the town still looks off-kilter. It looks like it doesn’t belong there. Almost as though it has been thrown up without permission and is living on borrowed time. The structures that fill it, the saloon, hotel, barns, jail and official buildings are all convincing enough, but the actual layout and positioning of Lago, like the house in Amityville or the equally spook-infested abode in Poltergeist, just looks like it has been plonked deep in the heart of wrongville … and will surely suffer for its indignity. One look at this place and you know that nothing good can come of it. Production Designer Henry Bumstead said of the place that it had “a weird look … a lot of strange colours, never looks the same way twice during the day.” The area is high up, though, and the atmosphere is rarified and unspoiled, the sunlight creating a magic mirror out of the lake. Eastwood would achieve something similar, at least lighting and colour-wise, in Pale Rider, clearly enjoying the ethereal mood of the High Country. Long before John Carpenter’s regular DOP Dean Cundey earned himself the sobriquet of the Prince of Darkness, cinematographer Bruce Surtees, himself, was thusly appointed. Making copious use of natural light – the arch shadows of the sun, the deep inkiness of the night-times – he would create chiascuro effects for Eastwood on many films. His work on Drifter is two-tone. Half the film is willfully gothic, whilst the other is almost circus-like and bright. Previously he worked with Eastwood on Two Mules for Sister Sara and then on The Beguiled, progressing up the ranks of the camera crew each time. He maintained that he shot Eastwood with a backlight so that audiences would never be able to glean what the character was thinking, always peering at him through a shadowy haze. Well, in all honesty, you don’t actually need to do this with Clint Eastwood. His face is so downright craggy, squinty and inscrutable that he is possibly a more perfectly Machiavellian menace than even Jack Nicholson could ever be. The fact that he does smile on occasion, and cast aside a witheringly askew glance does not alter the power of this stoic visage one iota. He may be a hero – mostly – but there is always something “tricksy” about him that leaves you on your toes. Surtees also shoots from a lot of low angles, suggestive of the dwarf’s point-of-view. Now this plays into one concept of the story quite implicitly, but it also forces us to identify with Mordecai as though he is a child. There are no other children in Lago – none that we see beyond Native urchins, anyway. This, again, seems to make some sort of Shakespearean comment upon the town.
Even the grownups are acting like brats. Which, of course, they all are.
Clint’s performance is typically electrifying. But then Eastwood, especially during these first couple of decades, could simply read the TV Guide and make it sound stunning. Eastwood never once looked like the conventional cowboy that had been the staple ingredient of movies and TV shows. There was the poncho for Leone and the dark canvas jeans. He would wear duster coats, frock jackets and always a more unusual hat than most other characters. The fact that he was dressing in a hodgepodge of authenticity and total fabrication didn’t alter how damn cool he looked. It made him all the more fascinating.
Although the narrative is essentially a ticking-clock variation – we know that the villainous trio will be set free and that they will head to Lago – and that we only have a small amount of time before trouble comes to town, Eastwood has fun with the various characters that inhabit the town and how they interact with the Drifter. Nobody likes him, that much is obvious … but is this because of his arrogance, or because he is unwittingly spiking their conscience and provoking them? Either way, he clearly enjoys rubbing them up the wrong way. Those who happily go along with his harebrained schemes – if they want his help they have to agree to his proposals no matter how insane they sound – are the ones who are most cowardly of all. Those who plot behind his back will inevitably fall afoul of his quicker wits, and quicker pistols. He has these people exactly where he wants them – between a rock and a hard place, and he is slowly tightening the whip-noose around them.
As Callie, the town harlot-with-a-backbone, Marianna Hill, came in for a rough ride. After remonstrating the murderous Drifter in the street for potentially lowering her takings in one fell swoop, he drags her off to the stable and has his wicked way with her. Eastwood has since claimed that he would rethink the rape scene if he was to make the film today and, indeed, it does strike an odd note. At least initially. Perhaps if it had been Sondra Locke, we would not have been so shocked, since she was so regularly mistreated in his films. But when you stop to think about it, in the context of his vengeance-fuelled campaign, this tactic does seem to fit right in. He wants to hurt the town and the individuals within it … and this also proves the point that the elders really don’t care so long as they get what they want out of their deal with the stranger. They callously ignore her protests with the weakest of excuses. So, they are still prepared to turn a blind eye to heinous crimes just as they were when the young Sheriff was bullwhipped to death. But you can see how Eastwood might now opt to find a way around such a harsh stratagem if he could start over. As with the more sympathetic hotelier, Sarah, Verna Bloom, he actually recognises strength when he sees it. He just has a hard time dealing with it when it barks in his face like a yappy-hound. Bloom had to make use of a body-double for some early long-shots so as not to postpone her wedding to critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks. Arguably, her character could do with fleshing-out and we are left a little frustrated that we didn't get to know her a bit better. Out of the motley bunch of yellow-streaked charlatans, these two women are about the only people with any attitude of their own. A famous publicity still showed Eastwood and Bloom standing beside two gravestones upon which are carved the names Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. This was a fine in-joke, of course, and a remark upon the passing of the baton. Eastwood could just have easily have cited that he was carrying on the good fight in their name, but this didn’t necessarily go down too well. It smacked of arrogance. He’d had one great success with Play Misty For Me, but this could have been taking things too far and showing that he was contemptuous of the men who had given him his big shot. Of course, Eastwood was being purely referential and doffing his hat to the two biggest names he had ever been attached to. And High Plains Drifter plays like a love-letter to both Sergio and Don from the sustained suspense to the smirk-inducing dialogue and quips.Even the grownups are acting like brats. Which, of course, they all are.The rest of the cast are finely selected for their faces, their voices and their attitudes. Mitchell Ryan appears as a duplicitous official with ideas of his own, and various other familiar dust-scrapers fill out the frame with nervous faces. And there are another couple from the Any Which Way films – namely Black Widow leader John Quade as the wagon-master who doesn’t much care for his vehicle being shot-up in the name of training, and his punch-happy Widow cohort William O’Connell, who appears here as a barber. Quade has one of the best faces in movies. Although normally playing a tough – something that he would effectively implode with his comical bad-boy turns in the Clyde-movies – he was reputedly one of the nicest people in Hollywood. The start of his underdog relationship with Eastwood is clearly signposted here. His big scene, when he is about to make his feelings clear to the Drifter with the aid of a knife is the sort of thing that you would see Roy Kinnear do in Mark Lester’s The Three Musketeers. The two even look similarly ogreish.
The action is good too, although this is not a garrulous old fashioned two-fisted oater by any means. Clint often seemed to enjoy handling sticks of dynamite, and he gets to wield a couple of them here too. His shooting down of a trio of assassins is pure Dirty Harry. One is blown through a window, another has a woman a shield but this doesn’t deter the Drifter for even a second, as he picks his shot expertly and drops him with a slug over her shoulder. The whipping scenes, although not a patch on those sadistic skin-flaying moments in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, are still fairly raw. The sound effects are cruel and the serpent-like coiling-around throats and the vicious slashes across faces will surely have you wincing. It was this film that set in motion the thematic and cathartic narrative that would be seen in many an Eastwood movie. The bad guys would hold sway for a bit, Clint more often than not getting a thorough beating and having to come back from the brink of death – actually High Plains Drifter seems to take the poor guy way beyond that brink – and then returning for a surprisingly swift finale of finely honed retribution. For some reason, the payback denouement to this one actually tends to remind me of the conclusion to Sudden Impact more than, say, Pale Rider or Unforgiven, but this is still a fine resolution to a film that has been charting its own wacky and wayward path right from the start.
The music for an Eastwood Western is not something to be taken lightly. Clint has a musical ear, a penchant for jazz and an appreciation for experimentalism and takes a great delight in helping to fashion a sound design for his adventures. Although Ennio Morricone had crafted his most famous film music for the Dollars Trilogy, he would also supply the eminently catchy theme for Two Mules for Sister Sara, Lalo Schifrin, who would go on to create the funky jazz-fusion for several Dirty Harrys, would produce a score for Joe Kidd and Jerry Fielding would deliver magnificent scores for The Outlaw Josey Wales and Escape From Alactraz and The Enforcer, Eastwood would turn to his friend Dee Barton for the weird and haunting music for High Plains Drifter. Barton was somebody that he could rely upon to think outside-of-the-box and to go in seriously the other direction when it came to scoring for populist genres. His work for Drifter is a classic example of the unusual laced with the conventional … to form something totally unique, avant-garde and memorable. Early synth, wailing, ghostly female voices (very seventies Schifrin, actually), dry guitars, oddly pitched singers and harmonica, lots of percussion and the backing of a full orchestra. The result was oddly melancholy, fragranced with brimstone and, in a smartly unorthodox move, lightened with racing, caper-esque and clownish jaunts. Like the film and its story and main character, the score is mischievous, deceptive and unnerving. With Morricone, you instantly had hooks into the themes, the setting and the psychology of the story. But, here, all bets were off. The score, like the Drifter, seemed to be mocking us. It gave the impression that it could veer off anywhere at any given time.
Barton wrote instinctively. He even went up to Lake Mono to get the feel of the place and allow its strange atmosphere to seep into his bones, writing the main theme whilst he was there for the first time. The way-out manner in which the film is composed certainly cannot help but remind of Morricone’s trailblazing, and yet it all sounds very American at the same time.It may not be as rip-roaring as The Magnificent Seven, to which it actually owes quite a debt of gratitude, as elegiac as The Wild Bunch, or as downright stylish as the Dollars Trilogy, but Clint’s first self-directed Western is brave enough to travel down a trail that nobody else in Hollywood had ever considered before. His supernatural/satirical take on the American Oater was, like its main character, a law unto itself and beholden to its own set of rules. It feels very much like some ramshackle, hand-me-down Shakespearean melodrama yet, at the same time, it also plays perfectly into the hands of a filmmaker/actor/superstar was making up his own guide-book as he went along. The comedy is there in spades. The sarcasm and the irony festoon the screen like sage-bush. But the thematic passion is resolutely dark and violent. These are all bad people, and nobody comes out of this confrontation smelling of roses.
The Man from Malpaso recruited what would become a regular bunch of filmic cowpokes, but his firm assurance in all departments, from casting, to photography, to screenwriting, to the music was totally on the money. He’d certainly learned from the best in Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but he unveiled something even more sacred from out of his own imaginative saddlebags. Some critics claim that his style owes more to the blackly amusing Sergio Corbucci, but I see a darkened and subdued Leone every time. Geoffrey Lewis was one of his most regular screen accomplices, here playing his very nemesis, and playing him very well. Lewis was usually the comedy sidekick, especially in the likes of the Every Which Way and Any Which Way films, but he was also a fabulous character actor who could switch from brevity to malice with supreme ease. You have only to see his performance in Tobe Hooper’s TV mini-series of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, in which he played the gravedigger who turns from very likeable and trustworthy to downright terrifying, once vampirised. Everyone goes on about little Danny Glick scratching at the bedroom window, but I always thought that the image of Lewis, golden-eyed, grinning and dead as he rocked back and forth in the upstairs chair to be one of the most terrifying images I’d ever seen on the small screen.His supernatural/satirical take on the American Oater was, like its main character, a law unto itself and beholden to its own set of rules.In a bum-note, it was the once-great John Sturges who helmed the lamentable Joe Kidd, a film that bares little to no similarity to the classics that the director had unleashed previously. Eastwood’s Malpaso had both Kidd and Drifter on their books, but Clint so strongly visualized Drifter that he could not entertain thoughts of anyone other than himself directing it. And even if the story had a vague kinship with The Magnificent Seven, there is little doubting that Sturges would not have been able to inject even half as much of the intelligence, mood or tension into the project as his protégée.
Eastwood would revisit the theme of the haunted stranger who may or may not be an avenging ghost in Pale Rider, even down to riding the same grey sorrel horse, but that would be a considerably lesser film. The very enigma of High Plains Drifter would conspire to work against the tale of the gunslinging preacher who comes down from the high country to help out a community of victimized prospectors. It was unavoidable that Pale Rider would, ahem, pale when compared to this earlier, more imaginative and less self-conscious offering. But the two films do sit well together and prove that Eastwood was definitely trying to say something about the resurrection of the Western in not just one, but two separate decades. Three, if you count Unforgiven which, in its own way, deals with the ghosts of the past.
Wayne and Leone tackled myth – both from different ends of the spectrum, but they tackled myth, nonetheless. Eastwood blew holes into those myths with his Westerns, but he didn’t do it with any malice and he certainly wasn’t intending to offend the powerful iconography that his own screen persona had been born out of. His films were quieter and less operatic. But look for them and you’ll find all the same bullets that the Leone and the Duke and Siegel loaded into their sagas of the guilty frontier.
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