In High Plains Drifter Eastwood plays "The Stranger", a man who rides into a small lakeside town and soon finds himself engrossed in the town's personal demons. After quickly disposing of a couple trouble makers bent on giving The Stranger a hard time, the people come to him with an offer he can't refuse. With the release of three murders that the town had a hand in putting in prison they offer him anything he wants if he assists them in protecting themselves against the retribution they know is heading their way. But is The Stranger really there to cover their butts or make them own up to their past sins?
For me High Plain Drifter epitomizes everything a western should be. More often than not westerns seem to get too caught up in the surroundings, too caught up in the epic musical scores and the elaborate scripts that they miss what truly makes a western great... grit. Grit is what Eastwood brings to all his characters and as the director he's bringing that to the entire picture. This film doesn't focus on lovely scenery shots, fancy musical scores and eloquent dialogue, no 98% of the story takes place in this small town, music is limited a strange arrangement of sounds, and the dialogue is short and simple. In all this Eastwood still manages to make a western that truly stands out among the rest, it's memorial, it's entertaining, it's engrossing, and it's a mystery.
Like most of Eastwood's characters The Stranger isn't your typical run of the mill hero. The Stranger has no tolerance for fools, if you're asking for trouble he'll give it to you, and if you're looking for his assistance it comes with a price. It's a character that works extremely well in a a film with a town full of disgraceful people. The film and The Stranger also poses many hard to answer questions, questions that are still discussed on messages boards to this date, having to do with rape and The Stranger's identity.
High Plains Drifter doesn't waste anytime getting down and dirty (one of the things I always appreciate about a film), fifteen minutes in The Stranger's body count is already up to three and his run of the town starts rolling. Next comes the town's resident hussy Callie Travers (Marianna Hill), while it's not pointed out right away events in the remainder of the film, as well as characters discussions, clearly pin Miss Travers as the closest thing the town has to a prostitute. She also makes it well known herself later on how she feels about the men in town, calling them all cowards, so its really not much of a surprise that once The Stranger rides into town and proves he's not one to be messed with that she's automatically attracted to him. Her way of introducing herself and getting his attention is to purposefully bump into him and begin to chew him out, The Stranger ignores her twice but she doesn't let up. Rather than give her the old Sean Connery open slap The Stranger simply gives her what she was aiming for... a literal roll in the hay, and she doesn't appear to hate it. So the controversy, is this rape?
Now I'm not condoning the behavior of The Stranger, but I see a noticeable blurred line here. Who initiated the interaction? Who continued to proceed in the interaction and what did this women expect the outcome to be? And while for about 25 seconds she appears to be generally fighting The Stranger, is this not simply another ploy of her playing hard to get? The only reason I bring this up is because a lot of people seem quick to judge The Stranger as a villain and this is usually where they begin, failing to see all the signs that point to this woman being a pretty big attention whore who knew good and well what she was doing and what she wanted. Does this make what The Stranger did okay? No, buts it's definitely not against her will (which is rape) and it continues the theme of The Stranger willing gives you what your asking for, and definitely keeps the film's ambiguity stirring.
Aside from the stranger there are quite a few other characters I found interesting. Mitchell Ryan played Dave Drake one of the owners of the mining operation and one of the brains behind the towns big secret. Only reason I bother pointing this character out is because he also had a 100 plus episode stint on the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows as Burke Devlin, a really entertaining black and white series I got caught up in a year or so back and really need to get back into. Billy Curtis plays the second most entertaining character to Eastwood's The Stranger as the midget Mordecai. Mordecai is constantly picked on by the town folk, yet an uncommon bond seems to be formed between him and The Stranger who later on in the film makes Mordecai the Sheriff and the Mayor. Mordecai is simply the film's comic relief and a nice offset to the very serious demeanor of The Stranger.
And finally another character that seems to get a lot of attention is the wife of the inn keeper Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom). Just as people are quick to jump on the stranger as villain they seem quick to jump on Sarah as a saint, as a lot of people refer to her as the town's last moral conscience, ironically it only takes Sarah a few minutes to be wooed by the charms of the stranger seemingly sleeping with him (definitely no rape there) so she doesn't seem entirely set apart from the rest of the town to me.
Overall, High Plains Drifter is simply an outstanding piece of western film-making, it's been sparking discussions and theories since 1973 that ought to tell you something about the film. I think people jump the gun too fast to pin down The Stranger as a villain, is he your typical good guy hero, no, but I think a lot of viewers mistake the actions he takes as purely criminal without realizing that the entire point of his character is to deal out punishment to the citizens of Lago for their unpunished crimes. The real villains of the story are the citizens and they're simply reaping the consequences of their actions, The Stranger never acts, he only reacts to the true characters of the citizens.