Clint Eastwood’s second film as a director—and his first western, High Plains Drifter takes us back to his days making spaghetti westerns in Italy with Sergio Leone. His character, a gunslinger known simply as “The Stranger” passes an unmarked grave as he rides into the weary, lakefront mining town of Lago. The stranger stops in the local saloon for a drink, where he’s harassed by three thugs. When they try to jump him as he’s getting a shave at a local barbershop, he coolly kills them all with a gun hidden under his barber’s apron. As it turns out, the dead men were hired mercenaries, tasked with defending Lago from three recently released convicts headed to Lago to exact vengeance on the citizens they believe railroaded them.
It’s not long before the mayor pulls out all the stops to convince The Stranger to defend the town, something he agrees to do after he is offered anything he wants in return; exactly what he wants turns out to be more bizarre than anyone could have imagined. All pf a sudden this seemingly standard story turns into something rather dark and strange.
High Plains Drifter works quite well, because Eastwood, aided by Dee Barton’s unsettling score, creates a sense of dread the moment he appears on screen. Though the plot is disappointingly obvious, the disturbing flashbacks which give the plot away are very well done. Nonetheless, once The Stranger orders that the town be painted red and renamed ‘Hell,’ it’s clear things are moving into horrific/creepy territory. It’s important to point out that cinematographer Bruce Surtees work makes the landscape look gorgeous in the first half of the film, and flips the switch in the second to make things look genuinely menacing.
As expected, Eastwood dominates the film, but the supporting cast is solid. Verna Bloom is excellent as the reticent hotel owner. Of particular note, is Billy Curtis as the town midget Mordecai, whom the Stranger declares sheriff and mayor. Marianna Hill, playing the towns promiscuous blonde, is part of the film’s most controversial scene; raped by the Stranger, not only does she appear to enjoy it, it’s actually suggested she deserves it. If High Plains Drifter were made today, I think that scene would be handled much differently, if included in the film at all.
With the exception of the rape scene, High Plains Drifter has aged rather well. While not a perfect film, it’s still an effective an exciting genre piece. It also served as early evidence that Clint Eastwood would be a force to be reckoned with in the director’s chair.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Universal’s 1080p transfer is slightly inconsistent. A slight sheen of grain is apparent but faces aren’t as consistent as one might like, occasionally appearing a bit waxy. Thankfully, the print is in good shape, exhibiting no scratches or notable issues. The occasionally garish color scheme looks very strong, with the reds, and browns looking rather vibrant. The image is good, showing off a nice level of detail and texture, while Bruce Surtees cinematography thrives. Contrast appears accurate. Universal has delivered a transfer with much to appreciate.
The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track doesn’t offer much activity from the rear speakers. Dee Barton’s dark, haunting score sounds good, but it doesn’t have the ‘life’ a full surround mix would offer. Dialogue is perfectly presentable and clear. Sounds such as gunshots come through sharply and in an organized fashion. While this is far from a great sound mix, it’s certainly acceptable.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Given that this is a 40th Anniversary Edition, the lack of extras is disappointing:
- Theatrical Trailer (SD)
- Digital Copy
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