Eastwood Paints the Town Red
On one hand "High Plains Drifter" is your stereotypical western, Clint Eastwood playing a mysterious gun slinging stranger rolling up in to town and killing a few people. But on the other hand it's much darker than your normal western with an eerie sense of foreboding which starts with a shocking rape and keeps you gripped till the credits start to role. It's by no means perfect, at times "High Plains Drifter" seems unsure whether it wants to be funny rather than a dark western but it is strangely brilliant.
Having turned up in the coastal town of Lago, a mysterious stranger (Clint Eastwood - Joe-Kidd) finds himself in the thick of it after killing 3 mercenaries there to protect it from a trio of criminals. With the town in need of finding someone else to protect them they talk the stranger into helping them, giving him what ever he wants in return. But is the stranger's appearance in Lago really a coincidence or is he there for some other reason.
As already mentioned there is something a little stereotypical to "High Plains Drifter" and in fact Clint Eastwood plays up to the image of "The Man With no Name" created in the Sergio Leone movies with him playing the un-named "The Stranger". But it's not just "The Stranger" which feels stereotypical because on one hand you have the dangerous wanderer, the brilliant guns man agreeing to help out the town protect themselves. And as such there is just the right amount of familiarity to "High Plains Drifter" so that you know what to expect and it doesn't push the boundaries of being a western too far.
But whilst there is this stereotypical side to "High Plains Drifter" there is also a much darker side which is highlighted very early on as having ridden into town, shot 3 guys for pulling their guns on him "The Stranger" then drags a woman into a barn and rapes her. It's not as graphic as many modern movies but it's shockingly disturbing, unexpected and gets you wondering what the hell is going on. That feeling of what the hell is going on continues throughout as we get a glimpse of the mysterious past of "The Stranger" through various dream/nightmare sequences which hint as to why "The Stranger" has shown up in the coastal town of Lago but still leaves you unsure of what he is going to do.
That being unsure also spreads itself out in an almost comical way as having agreed to help protect the town from 3 recently released criminals "The Stranger" is given free run. And it's hard to ignore the whole amusing side of this by helping himself to what ever he wants, ordering drinks for everyone, making them paint the town red and making the town midget, Mordecai, both the mayor and sheriff. There are so many scenes which make you smile but it feels too sectionalized as in we get a dark mysterious first part, a strangely humorous middle section before it returns to being dark for the ending. It doesn't make it terrible for being so but makes "High Plains Drifter" feel slightly disjointed and compartmentalized as if as director Eastwood was experimenting with various methods of storytelling.
Talking of which "High Plains Drifter" really revolves around Clint Eastwood and his character "The Stranger". There is no denying it's a good performance from Eastwood especially giving us this despicable man who rapes a woman for no reason yet we still champion. In fact he plays him just right, giving us the mean gun slinger which Eastwood does better than anyone yet making him mysterious from beginning to end as you get to the credits and you are still not sure exactly who "The Stranger" was.
But Clint Eastwood is not alone and whilst there are solid performances from the likes of Verna Bloom, Geoffrey Lewis, Walter Barnes and Robert Donner it is Billy Curtis as the town's midget Mordecai which really stands out delivering drama and comedy perfectly, often getting close to stealing the limelight from Eastwood's "The Stranger".
What this all boils down to is that "High Plains Drifter" is a very good and surprising western. It has all those classic elements of the great western's the quick gun action, the mysterious gun slinger and the variety of town's folk. But it is also a dark movie, which keeps you engrossed as you are never entirely sure of who "The Stranger" is and what he will do next.