High Plains Drifter

high2High Plains Drifter, Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1973, 105 mins – 4K UHD

There’s a ghost in High Plains Drifter– on first or second viewing, you might decide its Eastwood’s character, a wronged town Marshall betrayed and killed in cold blood now returning as a nameless drifter to exact vengeance on those who killed him and those that allowed it. While that’s patently true, the film variously described as a Gothic Western or a Western Ghost Story, there’s another ghost lurking, in every frame- its the ghost of the way films used to be. 1973. Imagine that. Clint Eastwood in his prime. Directing and starring in a Western. Does it get any better?

In 1970s American Cinema, a decade of cynical, brutal antiheroes, the drifter of this grim film is possibly the biggest antihero of them all. Here’s a guy who kills in cold blood, rapes a woman, bullies and belittles with utter disdain the morally bankrupt town that betrayed him. There’s things in this film -such as when the drifter drags a woman into a barn and forcers himself on her- that you couldn’t get away with in film today without howls of protest from all sorts of groups.  Who are audiences intended to identify with and root for here? The people of Lago all share guilt in allowing a good man to be murdered, and didn’t lift a finger to help him, but this drifter is hardly someone we can identify with either.

By the early 1970s, the American Western was already changing, had been for years, but this film seems to be a further quantum-shift to that end,  Eastwood seems to have been deliberately kicking all the old tropes of the noble Western, with its moralist tales of Good and Evil, into the dust. Everybody deserves their damnation here, it seems: painting over the town’s sign from ‘Lago’ to ‘Hell’ seems fitting indeed. Is Eastwood dismantling the myth of the American West here, or the American Dream in general? I’m not at all surprised to have read of John Wayne’s response to this film and his resultant feud with Eastwood.

high1This was my first time watching this film in widescreen, having only seen it on television years ago- it looks great on Kino’s 4K disc; there’s lots of detail, the HDR gives a great sense of depth in daytime scenes, Eastwood often framing scenes with the big blue sky and the lake behind the wooden structures; its a bright, handsome picture at times quite at odds with the darkness of the story. In night time scenes here’s some black crush evident but that seems to be how this film was photographed, the scenes shot at night under limited lighting (as opposed to that day-for-night nonsense) plunges so much into darkness, as if the film is ironically trying to protect us from seeing what’s happening.

There is no-one today working in Hollywood who has the presence of Eastwood in his prime; he is an icon of Cinema and this film is obviously a precursor of his later Unforgiven, another subversive film that questions the heroic shooters of the Western. There is so much to enjoy in High Plains Drifter – the cast is great, they are all middle-aged and their faces often craggy, nobody has been anywhere near the gym (and there’s something so refreshing in that); there’s nothing remotely aspirational here. Only darkness and bankrupt morality- Eastwood suggesting that maybe that’s all there ever was in the West. High Plains Drifter may be one of the grimmest, darkest Westerns ever made and I suspect it just gets better with age.


One thought on “High Plains Drifter

  1. Pingback: Serpico – the ghost of 82

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