The incorporeal spirit of his dueling godfathers, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, haunt Clint Eastwood’s second directorial effort, which also invites the tenebrous psychosis of Eastwood’s debut Play Misty for Me to the party. From Leone, Eastwood attunes to the primordial, baroque expanse of the Western as a dreamscape or an amoral vetting ground rather than a physical place. As a counterbalance, Eastwood matches the florid poetry of Leone to Siegel’s terse brutality to concoct a Western as comfortable with surreptitiously shooting you in the back as it is with orchestrating the social theater of the high noon showdown.
Incidentally, the Don Siegel film that High Plains Drifter draws spirits from most obviously is not the more famous works like the crypto-conservative Dirty Harry, but Siegel’s other 1971 Eastwood starring vehicle The Beguiled, a dark, baleful, psychosexual glass menagerie that serves as the missing link between Tennessee Williams and the sublime, ghostly 1975 art-house film Picnic at Hanging Rock. High Plains borrows the molasses-trickle atmosphere of The Beguiled but replaces the hot-house perspiration with a bent, sinister prism of horror and Western nihilism. If it’s Leone-inflected, it’s all played with a Bava-twist (a twitch of the death nerve, if you will).
Eastwood’s body arrives in the sun-drenched, forlorn town of Lago as he did in many Westerns beforehand, and as befit his integration and transgression of the lone individual savior myth that buttressed the Western genre and savored the spirit of rugged Americana, drifting many Americans off to sleep on myths and tall tales of boot-strap individualism. Eastwood’s place in this canon has always been as much affirmation as rebellion, operating less as a moral force of good in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly than a lesser-of-two-evils. But High Plains Drift is even less equivocal in its casting the Western myth as a gravestone cemetery of false rumors and mendacious visions; this is the Western as nightmare.
So Eastwood does ride into Lago, but he’s no white-hat Guardian Angel. Bruce Surtees, a great unknown cinematographer from the era who worked with Siegel, Eastwood, and Sam Fuller in his sublime White Dog, envisions this man with no name as a Mizoguchian specter (amusingly reversing the traditional, only partially correct assumption that Western cinema was exported to the Japanese masters, denying the influence of world filmmakers on later period Westerns and American directors). With a grubby screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (creator of the Shaft character and Oscar winner for The French Connection), this ostensible liberator is instead a toxic avenger with an anarchist’s drive to literally burn down the myth of Western expanse and to leave the rotting flesh and tattered ash of traditional value structures crackling in his wake.
It’s as if Eastwood saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller and felt that the ambiguous finale, where the community saves themselves from a raging fire and brings life to the once-decrepit, hollow church that named the town, was hindered only by its equivocation and ambiguity in interrogating the Western myth. In High Plains Drifter, the parched, sun-baked expanse of the West is of utility only so that it may set off a powder-keg of white-hot conflagration. Go all the way to hell or go home. Surtees orchestrates an aura of malevolence extended by shattered angles and Dee Barton’s unearthly score, more Weird West than Wild West. And, although the film is full-throated in its air of slowly encroaching gloom, editor Ferris Webster, an important fixture throughout ’60s and ’70s macho pictures, sutures the film with demonic efficiency that saves it from becoming overbearing and self-important in its nihilism. If the rumours that John Wayne voiced his disapproval of the harsh, unforgiving, amoral universe of High Plains Drifter to Eastwood are true, one thinks everyone involved might treat the invective from the moral right as a badge of honor rather than cause for chagrin. One suspects, at least, that Eastwood gave himself a pat on the back.
High Plains Drifter still bears the rough edges of an inexperienced director standing in the shadows of his forebears (but what shadows!). Eastwood’s statements on the West would evolve from firebrand castration of the genre to more ethereal, troubled, complicated treatments, tone poems while High Plains is more a gleeful playground of occult destruction, a summoning circle with Eastwood playing both the necromancer and the freshly arisen cadaver. On balance, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and the indomitable Unforgiven are more incisive in their studied genre exegesis, and a clutch of Eastwood’s non-Westerns (Bird, most notably) are more balanced, curated, ruminative productions as well.
Yet the appeal of High Plains Drifter is precisely its vigorous, unrestrained, “doesn’t know any better” insouciance, with its cavalier wielding of contradicting styles and influences eventually pitched as a batty fever nightmare in the hallucinatory beauty of the climax where the innocence of the West is drawn and quartered rather than rendered fodder for meditation. It’s not much for philosophy, but the film’s thousand-mile stare is enough to make you crawl back under your tombstone. This open-casket funeral for a genre isn’t the great New Hollywood treatise on the West or American identity, but it’s a hell of a firestarter nonetheless. By the time the curtains come crashing down, literally set ablaze, Eastwood has cast himself as judge, jury, and executioner, pushing his iconographic lone-wanderer persona to frighteningly existential extremes by plunging America’s go-to dream genre straight into the depths of hades.