High Plains Drifter

Released:  1973

Cast:  Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis

SUMMARY:  One day in the small mining town of Lago, a stranger rides into town.  He is immediately noticed by some locals, who follow him first into the bar, then the barbershop, trying to pick a fight.  When they finally push too far, the Stranger (Clint Eastwood) shoots all three of them with a hidden gun.  Another local, a dwarf named Mordecai (Billy Curtis) is very impressed by the display, and strikes up a conversation with the Stranger.  He follows him after he leaves the barbershop, and sees Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) purposely run into him.  Callie tries to play it off as the Stranger’s fault, but he sees through the act and drags her into the nearby stable.  After leaving Callie, the Stranger takes a room at the local hotel, but refuses to register.  As he sleeps that night, the Stranger dreams of a man being whipped in the center of town.  The next morning, the Stranger is taking a bath when Callie Travers appears and tries to shoot him; she misses, and is dragged out by several other men.  Meanwhile, the Stranger’s arrival and reputation have spread around town, and the Sheriff soon comes to visit him.  He explains that the Stranger will not be arrested or charged with the death of the three men, all of whom were professional gunfighters.  In fact, the entire town is more preoccupied by the fact that several other notorious men, Stacey Bridges and his cousins, Dan and Cole Carlin, are getting released from jail that very day.  Because they were arrested in Lago, the town believes that the men will be looking for revenge.  They hired the three gunfighters to protect them, but now that they are dead, the town is vulnerable.  The town’s leaders decide to hire the Stranger for the job, but he refuses to do so.  Finally, the Sheriff offers the Stranger anything he wants in return for taking the job.  The Stranger immediately takes him up on the offer, going on a shopping spree through town; unimpressed with both the current Mayor and Sheriff, he gives the two jobs to Mordecai.  He also enlists the help of the townspeople in a very curious plan that includes setting up a welcoming picnic for the outlaws, painting the entire town red, and painting over the name “Lago” with “Hell”.  He forces the men of the town to drill and practice shooting and defensive tactics, so that they will be ready for the outlaws when they come.  However, some of the men grow resentful of the Stranger, and skeptical and derisive of his unusual plan.

As expected, when Bridges and the Carlin brothers are released from prison, they immediately head for Lago.  Back in town, some of the town leaders have had enough of the stranger, and attempt to attack him in his hotel room.  He kills all except one of them, and also blows up most of the hotel.  When the owner of the hotel indignantly confronts him, and mockingly points out that he has nowhere to sleep, the Stranger grabs the man’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom), and takes her to the couple’s room.  Like Callie, though Sarah is initially very resistant, she soon warms up to the Stranger.  In the morning, she asks the Stranger if he has ever heard of Jim Duncan:  when he replies in the negative, she explains the story behind his dream.  Jim Duncan had been the town Marshal, but had discovered that the mine that sustains and runs the town was actually on government land.  Duncan wanted to report this, but virtually every other man in town opposed this, not wanting to lose his job.  When Duncan could not be dissuaded, the men hired Bridges and the Carlin brothers to kill him.  As seen in the Stranger’s dream, Duncan was whipped to death in the middle of town, with everybody watching.  Only Sarah Belding, the hotel owner’s wife, tried to do anything to help Duncan.  After the murder, the townspeople double-crossed the outlaw trio, resulting in their prison sentence.  This is the reason why the town is so sure that the outlaws will be returning.  When she finishes her story, Sarah states that Duncan was buried in an unmarked grave, then muses that the dead don’t truly rest without a marker.  After leaving Sarah, the Stranger rides out and finds the outlaws, engaging in a brief shootout before going back to Lago.  He alerts the town that the trio is on its way, and orders the men into position.  They obey, but are shocked to see that the Stranger then mount his horse and ride out of town.  Their attention is quickly diverted by the outlaws, who have arrived in a rage.  Despite their training and superior numbers, the townspeople are overcome quickly.  Bridges and his men put everyone in the saloon while the rest of the town burns.  They hold everyone in terror, until the Stranger suddenly returns.  He whips one of them to death (like Jim Duncan was), hangs another with a whip, and shoots Bridges.  Belding, the resentful hotel owner, tries to shoot the Stranger, but Mordecai manages to shoot and kill him first.  The next morning, with the town nearly decimated, the Stranger rides out.  On the way, he passes Mordecai, who is busily carving a grave marker for Jim Duncan.

MY TAKE:  This is an odd movie, because the identity of the main character is never explained.  He never reveals his name, even when asked directly, and he never explains what he’s doing in town.  I came to wonder if he was Jim Duncan’s brother (as apparently many others have), but there’s also a supernatural quality to him:  he manages to escape several point-blank shots from Callie Travers, and seemed to be punishing the townspeople as much as he was punishing the outlaws.  Although he would have no way of knowing what happened to Duncan (unless he was either the brother or some supernatural being), he only befriends Mordecai and Sarah Belding – who are the only two people who weren’t somehow complicit in Jim Duncan’s murder.  As far as the whole painting the town red and renaming it Hell thing, I can’t see any explanation except to embarrass and mentally punish the town.  As a distraction, it would only have stopped the outlaws for a few seconds.  To me, it seemed more like he was reinforcing the town as a place of evil.  The plot is interesting, in that the town as a whole is really the bad guy – very different from typical Westerns.  The possible punishment-from-beyond theory is even interesting:  I just wish things had been explained a little better (I don’t like ambiguous, decide-for-yourself themes).

RATING:  Weird.

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