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High Plains Drifter (1973)

When it comes to western persona's no one comes close to matching that of Clint Eastwood.  He's the polar opposite of the campy, redneck, grandfather figure John Wayne seemed to always portray and maybe that's why I love him so much.  No disrespect to John Wayne, but in a gunfight Eastwood's western persona would drop Wayne's faster than Tiger Woods can drop his pants!  Eastwood's westerns also redefined a genre that was seemingly plagued by long run-times, too many riding/location scenes and a lot pointless jabber.  It's Eastwood that defined setting up a simple non flashy atmosphere, and still managed to create complex characters that racked up the body counts.

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.

The other major discussion point on the film is The Stranger's identity.  Now if you haven't seen this film before you might want to skip the next two paragraphs as it will certainly contain SPOILERS.  There are two widely held beliefs and one I rarely hear mentioned anymore in regards to The Strangers identity.  The most popular is that The Stranger is in fact Marshall Jim Duncan, or more specifically his ghost.  Duncan was the man the town stood by and watched as three hoodlums road in to town and whipped him to death.  As it later turns out the town had hired those three men to kill the Marshall because he was about to report them for mining on government land.  The town later sets up the three hired men sending them to prison and really pissing them off, which is why upon their release they're coming back to terrorize the town.  

The other theory is that The Stranger is a relative of the Marshall, possibly his brother, and the third one which I've only heard a few times is that he's an angel. Personally I tend to go with the ghost angle, since one of the characters makes a point of saying the dead don't rest when they're buried in an unmarked grave.  But at the same time I don't think The Stranger himself is a ghost, but possessed by the ghost of the Marshall.  Last time I checked ghosts don't eat, sleep, drink and get it on with the women folk, people point to the bathtub scene as they're proof that Eastwood is a ghost, but in all actuality the girl was simply a horrible shot, if he was a ghost why would he be taking a bath!?!

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.


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