Somebody left the door open … and the wrong dogs came home
High Plains Drifter Blu-ray ReviewA stranger riding a grey sorrel into the almost surreal lakeside town of Lago and immediately stakes a claim upon the place. Although not overtly looking for trouble and within minutes of getting himself a beer and arranging to have a shave, he’s killed three men. He even forces himself upon a local woman who has the gumption to stand up to his warring ways. But the townsfolk see strength, skill and cunning in this man – traits that they lack. And with the news that three vicious thugs are about to be released from the federal jail and will 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 organise a special welcome home party.
Thus, accepting their dark and deadly proposition, the stranger commences training these pitiful weaklings in how to shoot. Given free reign, he also appoints the town midget, Mordecai 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 saviour could well be a zombie. He may be revitalising the American Western, but he seems to be doing so with a wagonload of Spaghetti accoutrements.
High Plains Drifter Blu-ray Picture QualityUniversal’s Anniversary edition of High Plains Drifter comes in at 2.40:1 and is encoded via AVC. Grain is apparent but it is slight and there doesn’t seem much consistency or texture when it comes to faces, which can sometimes appear quite greasy. The print is in good shape. There are no nicks, tears or wobbles to get concerned about.
The film has something of a gaudy colour scheme – nothing like some of the more outrageous Spaghettis – but this is finely captured. Reds don’t look over-embellished in the sunlight as they could so easily have done when the Drifter has the town painted and renamed Hell. They don’t look overtly comic-book or over-saturated. The expanse of the landscape and the high angle of the sun, together with the chilly atmosphere combine to create a clear and stark image that is without the patina of a stylized aesthetic. Skin-tones are disparate. Not everyone is tanned and leathery. Some faces look quite sick and jaundiced, some quite pale. I would say that this was accurate to the shoot, the makeup and the individuals. There are times when the colours, which can normally be vibrant, become smoother and more diluted – such as the initial flashback sequences, which looks a little dupey to me.
Whilst the photography is excellent, the anamorphic lenses do tend to make the image a touch more blurry than many other films shot this way. Yet there is much to commend. Far off points can be picked out and studied, certainly better than they ever could before, though there are still many elements that become hazy and indistinct along the horizon or on the outer edges of the town. The frame seems to encourage your eyes to rove about more, because of the added clarity. The landscape shots are more revealing, and more textured. Some shimmer and some aliasing may occasionally make their presence felt, but the image is stable and detailed and more firmly established. Look at the cloud patterns. There is more dimensionality to them now, which really adds to the depth and the sense of space to the location. There is no way that Eastwood and Surtees could have shot this on the Universal lot as originally intended. It is an expansive film, and this print and transfer really allow you to savour such distances. Even scenes set indoors, such as the view down the bar from Eastwood’s position of the gathering locals all surveying him from the other end, and little Mordecai perched on the end of the bar, offer up good depth and dimensionality.
There is a lot more detail than previously apparent and depth is frequently excellent
There is a lot of extra detail to be found in close-ups of faces and costumes. By now you pretty much expect to see crags and lines and wrinkles, whiskerage and lashes, but there is added detail in the eyes and the lips and a bit more separation in hair. Clothing delivers some weave and stitching. We can see repair jobs and loose bits of material, scuffs and rips and dirt. These elements were always there but there was no way that they were as apparent until this hi-def makeover. Wounds from the cutting lash and blood-hits are also more revealing. Blood is more vivid, especially the bullet-holes. Furnishings and bottles, paintings on the wall, drapes and wooden boards, of which there are a great many, have more finite clarity than before.
You can expect some softness around the edges of the frame at times. This is all down to the source photography from Bruce Surtees. Contrast is accurate, I would say. Remember how Surtees would use the natural light and shadow and catch the dwindling day to create interesting elements of shade. And also how he would have Clint backlit to try to keep as much mystery to his motivations by masking his eyes and face … so a lot of these darker, shadier elements are intentional. The earthier colours and tones stand out well against the reddish taint of the painted town. Details within the darker areas of the frame aren’t posed any problems with crushing. Faces are often shaded beneath the brims of hats – this was something that Eastwood always insisted upon. Pale Rider, especially, obscures faces with the murk from hats, and this is certainly in evidence here too. The hellish fires that highlight the town during the final night sit just fine against the darkness, neither swamped by it nor overly brightened.
I didn’t have a problem with any edge enhancement, although some haloing is apparent with the low lighting and the sun’s glare. Dark costumes seen against lighter backgrounds will tend to produce some ringing.
At the end of the day, High Plains Drifter looks very agreeable on Blu. There is a lot more detail than previously apparent and depth is frequently excellent. I’m not sure about the level of the grain, though. Some shots certainly look totally film-like and nicely textured, but others just do not. A lot of this can be attributed to the photography, but I am not convinced that Universal haven’t done some tinkering of their own.
Still, I am very happy, overall, with this transfer.
High Plains Drifter Blu-ray Sound QualityUniversal’s disc sports a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that, to be honest, needed bother with the surround element at all. I can’t think of anything that the rear speakers brought into play that is worth mentioning. Whilst I will refrain from stating that the audio is flat, it is hardly energizing.
A huge part of the film’s unusual attraction is its dark and surreal score from Eastwood’s friend and composer Dee Barton, who structures the soundtrack like a clownish operetta, replete with martial drums, whimsical synth and harmonica, wailing, ethereal vocals and interesting percussion. Well, it comes across with some distinction, allowing the weird combination of electronics, vocals and full orchestral support ample room to breathe. His unusual instrumentation is nicely picked-up on by the mix, with the odd and ghostly female vocals and queasily pitched synth floating spectrally across the soundscape. Having listened to the outstanding CD score from Intrada in-conjunction with this review, I can safely say that the BD’s audio mix does a good, crisp and detailed job of bringing the score to prominence.
Dialogue is perfectly presentable. There are some great voices in here. Little Mordecai and Callie’s bleating come over well, as does the tittle-tattling of the secretive town-elders. Geoffrey Lewis, so amiable usually, adds a little venom to Stacy’s voice. Clint, as you would expect, supplies the vocals that we hang onto the most. His raspy, snakeskin-dry brogue creeps out of the speakers with just enough spit to get by. Some shouting
A huge part of the film’s unusual attraction is its dark and surreal score from Eastwood’s friend and composer Dee Barton
Gunshots are sharp and provide a good strong report. Some shooting out in the woods is very centrally organized and lacking in special acuity – we get little sense of distance as shooters run through the woods. The target practice sequence offers all sorts of firing going off in a few more directions than we’ve been used to and this provides the set-up with some enjoyable, though brief coverage. Directionality isn’t exactly pin-sharp and precise, but it certainly does a good job of bringing the alarmingly naff shooting of the townsfolk to the fore. The lash of the whip makes for a skin-singeing crack quite often. We have the flashbacks which are painful enough, but there are also the moments during the climax when the whip is finally used in revenge. The slash and snap of the cord is well presented. Impacts, too, are solid and meaty.
The more mundane elements, such as jangling spurs on the boardwalk, the cloppity-clop of horses’ hooves, the removal of a cork from a bottle and the sizzling of detonator cord are also well presented. You won’t have to struggle to hear any of the more subtle things. We even have a few explosions to rock the set-up. They won’t pose much of a challenge to the likes of Olympus Has Fallen, of course, but they add a nice degree of acoustic violence and a little bit of oomph. Most of this is stretched across the front, though, so don’t anticipate around rumbles from over the shoulders.
So, this isn’t much of a surround experience to be honest. Yes, the sound field is stretched out and given a smidgeon more movement around the environment, and all the more welcome for it, but don’t go expecting much whip-around (no pun intended) activity to ignite all the speakers. The stereo spread across the front is certainly reasonable without pushing things too far or attempting anything it can’t quite handle. Bass levels are adequate, though once again you shouldn’t anticipate anything too elaborate. Doors clatter, bodies tumble, rocks fall and things blow up. All of this sounds decent enough for a film that is forty years old. Nothing more elaborate than that.
You can’t really argue with a track of this vintage. It doesn’t aim high in terms of modern mixes, obviously, but this still represents one of the more avant-garde soundtracks of the early seventies and this element still comes across.
High Plains Drifter Blu-ray ExtrasWhat does that say on the front cover?
Yep … it says 40th Anniversary Edition. Which sort of, kinda, makes you think that this classic Western from one of Cinema’s greatest talents might get something in the way of interesting extras to help immortalize it for fans and aficionados, doesn’t it?
Well, if you are satisfied with a Theatrical Trailer then happy trails, pardner. Me? I think that just stinks to the High Plains.
Suck the end of my barrel, Universal. It’s cold, but I think you’ll find it fits … and you deserve it.
Is High Plains Drifter Blu-ray Worth BuyingOne of the classic Westerns of the seventies gets a decent transfer for its 40th Anniversary, but Universal forget to pack any extras along for the ride. For such a notable and cherished film this is unforgivable and sticks in my craw. But, and this is the important thing, of course, it is how the film looks and sounds on Blu that really matters.
And it looks and sounds just fine. Dee Barton’s unusual score rattles around within its own warped carnival, and the film’s deliciously surreal visuals have punch, clarity and detail. It’s vintage material now, but it looks strong and well-defined and makes the hi-def leap with some gusto.
The film, itself, remains one of those mythical New Wave masterpieces of the genre.
The film, itself, remains one of those mythical New Wave masterpieces of the genre. The times were a-changing and Clint Eastwood was right there at the forefront of this rejigged pioneer spirit. After Leone, the West was a darker place, both spiritually and moralistically. Eastwood took the valuable lessons from both Sergio and Siegel, but he had something unique inside his own psyche that needed to strut its way down the old trails. His new breed of antihero was as distinct and highly personified as those of Wayne’s, though the two stars would never see eye-to-eye on how the frontier should be dealt with.
High Plains Drifter is a stunning and offbeat character-piece. It is a morality play. It is a dark and satirical farce about small-town bureaucracy and high-brow attitudes coming undone in the mean stare of those with the guts to look danger right back in the eye without flinching. Clint would explore the West further with The Beguiled and, of course, The Outlaw Josey Wales, before moving on to Drifter’s spiritual blood-brother, Pale Rider, and then Unforgiven. But there is a sense of devilry here that goes beyond the mere painting of the town red and the renaming of it Hell. Mischief is afoot and the film is clever, canny and full of wit.
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