Clint Eastwood became an international superstar after appearing in Italian director Sergio Leone's 'The Man With No Name' trilogy in the 1960's. Leone had a very stylistic visual style that has influenced countless Westerns since including Sam Raimi's THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995) and Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015). In turn, Eastwood has become a successful director in his own right, citing Leone as one of his mentors. But Eastwood would not adopt or emulate Leone's visual style during his career except for one film. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), one of Eastwood's early directorial efforts, is probably the closest film you'll find by Eastwood with a visual and production design style that clearly pays homage to the man who kick started Clint's big screen career -- Sergio Leone. And HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is not just a revenge Western but a ghost story too.
The screenplay for HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is by Ernest Tidyman who is more well known for writing gritty urban detective films like 1971's SHAFT (based on his novel) and William Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION (also 1971). But Tidyman is well schooled in the Western genre and Leone's image of the Western. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER'S story hearkens back to Leone/Eastwood's first collaboration A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS(1964) which is based on Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) which ultimately ripped off the idea from Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest. The protagonist (detective, samurai, gunslinger) pits two sides against one another while pretending to ally with both of them. In A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Eastwood plays two rival gangs against each other. DRIFTER twists that plot as Eastwood's the Stranger appears to be a town's savior from some incoming outlaws but the Stranger has ulterior motives toward the town too.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER begins like the opening of a Leone film from the first image of the Stranger (Clint Eastwood) appearing like a mirage from the high desert's shimmering heat to composer Dee Barton's eerie score evoking Leone's favorite composer Ennio Morricone. There's no dialogue, just sound as the Stranger rides into the town of Lago. Horse hooves trotting down Main Street, the Stranger's spurs jangling against the boardwalk. The crack of a bullwhip brings the first reaction from the Stranger as a wagon pulls away (more about the bullwhip later). Lago's citizens eye the Stranger wearily. It seems the Stranger just wants a beer. But he's harassed by three menacing gunmen at the bar so he heads over to the barber (William O'Connell) for a shave and bath. The gunmen follow him and try to intimidate him again. The Stranger shoots all three of them dead. For good measure, he beds the town tramp Callie Travers (Mariana Hill) in a nearby barn after she slaps him. Pure Leone in the first 10 minutes.
Lago is hiding a terrible secret. 12 months earlier, Lago hired three outlaws Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), Cole Carlin (Anthony James) and his brother Dan Carlin (Dan Vadis) to murder the town's marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn). Duncan had discovered something that could destroy Lago's livelihood. The three men bullwhipped Duncan to death before he could tell the government his discovery. Then, the town had the three killers arrested and thrown into the Territorial Penitentiary. But Stacey and his men are about to be paroled. When they get out, they're headed back to Lago for payment for services rendered and revenge.
The Stranger has just killed the three new guns that Lago hired to deal with Stacey and the Carlin Brothers. Sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes) asks the Stranger if he'll be their new gunslinger. The Stranger agrees to help them but for a price. He wants an open tab for anything he needs. He trains the locals into their own militia, teaching them how to shoot. But town leaders like Morgan Allen (Jack Ging) and Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley), the hotel owner, are tiring of the Stranger's demands.
The Stranger begins to turn the town against one another, staying one step ahead of attempts on his life as Stacey and his gang draw closer. The Stranger has every one paint the town bright red to greet the murderers. He crosses out Lago and paints HELL on the town's sign. The Stranger has a secret of his own, a connection to the dead marshal. The Stranger will exact his own brand of revenge on Lago before he deals with Stacey and the Carlin Brothers.
In only his second directorial effort (and first Western he directed), HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is a confident effort by Eastwood. He sticks with what got him to this point, creating an American Spaghetti Western that oozes Leone's style and tone. The landscape is stark (Eastwood uses Mono Lake in the California Sierras instead of Leone's Spain). The town of Lago is the archetype Western town with a saloon, hotel, barber shop, graveyard, and mining office, laid out simply like the opening town in Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966). The Stranger's one ally Mordecai (Billy Curtis) is a midget. Leone often used dwarfs and amputees as minor characters in his Westerns. Missing from HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER are the unique, grotesque faces that Leone lovingly did extreme close ups on. Only actor John Quade as Jake Ross with his bulldog-like mug comes close to resembling a Leone character.
The twist in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is that it's a ghost story too. When the Stranger appears out of thin air in the opening shot, we think it's just Eastwood showing off as a new director. But there's meaning to that first image. Eastwood's Stranger may be the ghost of Marshal Jim Duncan, perhaps even Duncan reincarnated. When I first saw the whipping scene, I thought it was Eastwood rolling in the dust, streaks of blood across his face. Director of Photography Bruce Surtees photographs the horrific flashback at night with little light. But Marshal Jim Duncan is played by Eastwood's Stunt Coordinator and Stunt Double Buddy Van Horn, who bears a passing resemblance to Eastwood.
Duncan mutters under his dying breath, "Damn you to hell," as Stacey and his men bullwhip him to death, the whole town watching, accessories to his lynching (except for little Mordecai who recoils in horror underneath the boardwalk). Duncan's body is thrown into an unmarked grave. "The dead don't rest without a marker of some kind," says Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom), one of the few good people in Lago. So the deceased Marshal Duncan, in the guise of the Stranger, exacts his own brand of revenge on Lago. He does damn the town to hell, painting it red and changing it's name from Lago to Hell. When the Stranger's revenge is complete, he rides out of town, passing Mordecai chiseling a name on a gravestone in the cemetery. Marshal Jim Duncan's name. "I never did know your name," Mordecai tells the Stranger. "Yes you do," the Stranger replies, riding off into the high plains before vanishing just as he materialized at the start. A mirage? An apparition? A supernatural gunslinger? You be the judge.
Eastwood as the Stranger is his usual sardonic self in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, maybe more annoyed and sarcastic than usual since he's a supernatural soul unable to rest until he extracts his vengeance. Geoffrey Lewis plays the lead heavy Stacey Bridges. Lewis made a career playing eccentric characters and bad guys who aren't as smart as they think they are. Eastwood must've liked Lewis as they starred together in seven films including THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974), EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978), and BRONCO BILLY (1980). In an inspired piece of casting, Billy Curtis plays Mordecai, the town midget and conscience of Lago. Mordecai is one of the few citizens of Lago that the Stranger can trust. Who would have thought we'd see Curtis who first appeared in the all midget Western THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN (1938) alongside the king of Westerns at the time Clint Eastwood. Curtis also had a small role in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).
The women of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER are typical of the female characters in a Leone film - either whores or respectable women. Mariana Hill plays the town harlot Callie Travers. She's basically raped by the Stranger early in the film but somehow Eastwood pulls the scene off like it was just a roll in the hay. Hill would also appear in THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974). Claire Bloom as Sarah Belding is the only sympathetic female character in DRIFTER. She's repulsed by the Stranger at first but comes to respect him (and sleep with him out of spite to her husband Lewis, the hotel manager). Bloom would later co-star in ANIMAL HOUSE (1979) as Dean Wormer's wife.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is peppered with character actors I remember from television and movies in the 70's. John Hillerman as the Bootmaker would appear in CHINATOWN (1974) and TV's MAGNUM P.I. (1980 to 1988). Mitchell Ryan as Dave Drake, manager of the Lago Mining Company, worked with Eastwood in MAGNUM FORCE (1973) and appeared in numerous 70's television shows like BARETTA, BARNABY JONES, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. Richard Bull as undertaker Asa Goodwin would become a household face on TV's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (1974 to 1983).
Eastwood would go down a similar supernatural road in PALE RIDER (1985) this time playing the mysterious Preacher who rides in from the mountains to protect Idaho prospectors against a ruthless mining company. Instead of a ghost, Eastwood's Preacher is Death, the rider on a pale horse according to Revelation 6:8. I didn't like PALE RIDER (which Eastwood also directed) when I first saw it in a theater during college but a recent viewing showed more promise to the film than I remember. But HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER is a much more intriguing Western that pays homage to Eastwood's mentor Sergio Leone and provides a supernatural element not often found in a Western.