Saturday, July 17, 2010
"High Plains Drifter:" Sometimes weird is good, Duke
Title: High Plains Drifter
Genre: Western ghost story
Notable for: Clint's first time directing a western
Coolest thing Clint does: Blasts three assholes from a barber chair
John Wayne was so disturbed by "High Plains Drifter" he sent a letter to Clint Eastwood complaining that the real west was nothing like the eerie and cruel place depicted in this movie. The real west was full of good people who pulled together to tame a wilderness, Wayne said. They were not cutthroats and cowards with no sense of decency.
To which we say: Who the hell cares?
"High Plains Drifter" was released when Brad was the same age Andrew is now. It immediately became his favorite Clint Eastwood movie and he is not sure that has ever changed. Andrew, for once, does not argue with his father on this point. "It's damn good," he says.
For starters, Clint's distinguished career of threatening grimaces, squints and low growls may have peaked in this film. He speaks every line in a menacing, hoarse half-whisper. No one messes with him without paying dearly. He humiliates, kills and rapes.
If we didn't like that stuff, this blog might be called "The Julie Andrews Project."
The thing John Wayne evidently could not appreciate is that Clint, who directed, did not try to make a story about the real West.
Our Netflix envelope credits "High Plains Drifter" for "existentialism." We're not exactly sure what that means, and we're too lazy to look it up. But we know Clint did a masterful job of using bleak visual images and eerie music to enhance a nightmarish and other-worldly story.
The film begins with Clint riding into a dreary town called Lago. He needs only a few minutes to kill three men who deserve it and rape a woman who likes it. We're pretty sure the rape scene -- or at least the part about the woman enjoying it -- would be too offensive to use in a movie today. But what are you going to do? This was made in 1973, not today.
Weird stuff begins right away. Clint, the ultimate mysterious stranger who will not tell anyone his name, has a dream about a man being whipped in a dusty street. It turns out the whole town has a dirty secret. Everyone stood by and watched as a former sheriff was whipped to death by goons hired by the local mining company.
The sheriff, in flashbacks, looks up through his dying eye at townspeople who do not lift a finger to help and says, "Damn you to hell." That's foreshadowing!
Town residents hire Clint to protect them from three desperadoes about to be released from territorial prison. These are the same three guys who whipped the sheriff to death. For some reason never made plain, the town framed all three on a robbery charge and now the killers want revenge.
Clint accepts the job on the condition that the town must give him anything he wants. He plunders the wares of merchants and makes a midget sheriff and mayor. He orders residents to paint every building bright red and renames the town Hell. He installs a banner welcoming the killers home and sets up a big table as if throwing a party.
At the end, Clint kills all three bad guys as the town burns down. Hell, indeed. As the last scumbag dies, he yells at Clint, "Who are you?"
That question is still treated with remarkable uncertainty. Richard Schickel, who has written extensively about Clint, contends his character's identity in "High Plains Drifter" remains a mystery. The New York Times overview (brace yourself, liberals) starts off by misquoting the ending of the film in a way that makes it more ambiguous.
Come on experts, this is no mystery.
In one scene, a woman says the murdered sheriff was buried in an unmarked grave. "They say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind," she says.
In the final scene, the midget carves a grave marker.
"I never did know your name," he tells Clint. "Yes, you do," Clint says.
Then the camera focuses on the name on the grave marker. It's the name of the murdered sheriff. Clint rides away and literally disappears in the haze.
Those clues are obvious, not subtle. Clint is the ghost of the dead sheriff, come to bring justice to both the men who killed him and the town that let it happen.
It is a great film with the ultimate manly message that no bad deed goes unpunished. If John Wayne did not like it, that was his loss.
Next up: "Magnum Force."