Ever since he got his start as Rowdy Yates on the CBS series Rawhide, Clint Eastwood’s name has become synonymous with the Western genre. His grimacing anti-hero persona stood in stark contrast to the white hat heroes often played by Gary Cooper or John Wayne. In fact, the Duke wrote Eastwood a letter in regards to High Plains Drifter, railing against its dark depiction of the Old West.
Eastwood had already made his debut as a director in 1971 with the thriller Play Misty for Me. For his sophomore effort, he decided to return to his Western roots with High Plains Drifter. Behind the camera, Eastwood borrows heavily from Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, the directors who had a hand in Eastwood’s most iconic characters: Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name. In front of the camera, Eastwood essentially reprises the latter role as an unnamed Stranger riding into the tiny mining town of Lago.
The Stranger wastes no time in making his presence known when he kills three men and rapes the local good time girl Callie Travers (Marianna Hill). Instead of having the Stranger arrested, the authorities in Lago ask for his help as a trio of outlaws, Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin Brothers (Dan Vadis & Anthony James), are headed straight to town after being released from prison. Turns out the simple folk of Lago have a dark secret. Their fortunes were made from a mine sitting on government land. U.S. Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) was whipped to death by the Bridges Gang in order to cover up their illegal operation. The citizens of Lago stood by and did nothing though only a dwarf named Mordecai (Billy Curtis) and Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom), wife of hotelier Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley) felt any remorse. Given carte blanche, the Stranger takes what he wants, then forces everyone to obey his bizarre requests like painting the whole town red and renaming it “Hell.”
High Plains Drifter plays like an eerie melding of spaghetti western and an episode of The Twilight Zone. Eastwood and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection) left the Stranger’s true nature ambiguous. Was he the brother of Jim Duncan? Or was he Jim Duncan reincarnated as an avenging spirit? The fact that Eastwood cast his stunt double and lookalike Buddy Van Horn as Duncan put fuel on the speculative fire.
Eastwood himself is at his most Eastwood-iest as he scowls and squints throughout the picture. He’s rude and abrasive to the few women in Lago, but damned if they still don’t love him anyway. Eastwood’s supporting cast is littered with recognizable character actors such as Mitchell Ryan (Magnum Force, Lethal Weapon) as ringleader Dave Drake, Robert Donner (Cool Hand Luke, El Dorado) as the town preacher, and John Hillerman (Magnum P.I.) as the boot maker.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The Blu-ray features a new digitally remastered transfer that is a vast improvement over Universal’s previous DVD release. The images are bold and rich in details like the thick layer of sweat on an actor’s face.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Audiophiles might be disappointed that Universal didn’t include the original mono track. Still, the new remixed sound will do just fine. There’s some nice depth to Dee Barton’s score while the dialogue comes in crisp and clear.
Although advertised as a 40th anniversary edition, the Blu-ray is practically bereft of bonus material. You’ll get a trailer, an Ultraviolet download code, and a DVD copy.
Film Value: 8
Hollywood went through radical changes during the 70’s, coinciding with the shifting cultural zeitgeist of the time. Even the western reflected this as evidenced by the somber McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the violence of Sam Peckinpah. High Plains Drifter certainly fits the bill as a dark western as well as a ghost story or a revenge film. Though it’s a great movie, Eastwood would do even better with The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven.