Directed by Clint Eastwood in 1973 and written by Ernest Tidyman, High Plains Drifter begins with the ominous image of a lone stranger (Clint Eastwood) on horseback emerging out of a desert mirage of sorts. He arrives in the small town of Lago and heads into the saloon, followed by three men who obviously intend to do him harm. As they follow him around and utter threats, he draws first and puts them down. From here he strikes up a friendship with Mordecai (Billy Curtis), a dwarf who hangs around the barbershop where the shoot out took place. When he accidently bumps into a prostitute named Calli Travers (Mariana Hill), she slaps him. He responds by taking her to a barn and raping her. This is not a kind man, and certainly not someone to be trifled with.
As it turns out, Lago has a dark secret. Three outlaws, Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), Dan Carlin (Dan Vadis), and Cole Carlin (Anthony James) killed Marshal Jim Duncan by whipping him to death as the townsfolk looked on and did nothing to stop it except for Sarah Belding (Vera Bloom), the wife of Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley), the town's hotel operator. She tried to save him but was obviously out of her league despite her good intentions. The reason the townsfolk let this happen? Duncan knew that the mine, the town's only real source of income, was on federal land and if this news got back to the government, it would be taken from them and effectively break the townsfolk. The stranger, holed up in a hotel, has dreams that tie him to this tragic event.
Though the three outlaws who killed Duncan were sent to prison for what they did, shortly after the stranger's arrival they're set for release and they're not happy with the way that the townsfolk handled things after they took Duncan out. Fearing that outlaws will seek revenge, the town hires the stranger to take care of the three killers. He declines, until the town's current sheriff, Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes), tells him he can do it on his own terms. At this point he agrees, paints the town red and changes the sign outside town that originally read ‘Lago' to ‘Hell.' He appoints Mordecai sheriff and mayor and sets in motion his plan to stop the outlaws before they can do further harm.
It's often been said that with this film Eastwood (the director) was aping the styles of two of the most prominent directors that Eastwood (the actor) had had the chance to work with at this point in his career, they being Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. And while their influence is obvious, it has to be noted that High Plains Drifter is more or less a remake of Django The Bastard, also known as The Stranger's Gundown, directed by Sergio Garrone in 1969. In Garrone's film, set after the Civil War, Anthony Steffen plays a stranger who returns to a town to get revenge against three officers who betrayed him during the war. The similarities are definitely there, but to his credit, Eastwood puts enough of his own spin on things and Tidyman's script makes enough changes to the basic concept that High Plains Drifter definitely succeeds on its own terms.
A gritty, tough and violent picture, Eastwood isn't really treading a whole lot of new ground here as an actor. He's still very much in ‘the man with no name' mode that he established with Leone, he doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue and is more likely to act than to speak. He has his moral code, of course, but he's out for himself but there's enough mystery and allegory around his character to keep things interesting. There are consequences here, not just for the three outlaws but also for the townsfolk and for the stranger himself. The rape scene, the most questionable bit in the entire film, seems crude and it is, but at the same time, it establishes the character and, like so much in this story, it does come back to haunt him later on down the road. This is not an immoral film, but in many ways (especially by the standards of mainstream Hollywood), it is a very raw one.
The supporting cast do fine work here. Eastwood is obviously the star but Geoffrey Lewis is great at playing creepy bad guys and he does that well here. Dan Vadis and Anthony James are also appreciable sinister in their respective roles. Billy Curtis is likeable as Mordecai and Vera Bloom is also very good in her supporting role. There's a lot of style here, the location photography really impressing on the audience the air of guilt that hangs over the entire town. This is not a film that glorifies life on the frontier but paints it as hard, rough and is about as far from a romanticized look at the old west as you're likely to find. The gothic atmosphere Eastwood has intentionally created here is emphasized even more by a genuinely eerie score by Dee Barton. This is pulpy and on the surface maybe a little rudimentary but once you start peeling back the layers of grit in which Eastwood has soaked this picture, there is much to appreciate about the picture. Eastwood would make a better film decades later with Unforgiven, a picture that once again harkens back to the role he played for Leone, but with High Plains Drifter he paints in morally ambiguous tones as fascinating story of a man who may not be but whose presence casts such a huge shadow over the citizens of Lago that it almost doesn't matter. This is a fantastic and dark western, atypical in many ways while familiar in many others, and it makes for great entertainment.
High Plains Drifter arrives on Blu-ray from Universal Studios in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 and aside from some minor shimmer here and there, it looks great. Detail is vastly improved over the previous DVD release. You'll notice this not only in close up shots but also medium and long distance shots as well. You can note the brush strokes on some of the wood once the town is painted red and you can easily make out individual pieces of stubble on the faces of almost ever male character in the movie. Texture is evident throughout the film, just take a look at the curtains that hang in front of a window where you can easily see some of the creases or pay attention to the costumes where the different materials used to create them are all easily noticed. Skin tones look very good and those worried about Universal having ramped up the noise reduction can rest easily as the grain structure doesn't appear to have been scrubbed out at all. Black levels are good and shadow detail is quite strong, this makes the scenes that have always been dark a little easier on the eyes, the bull whip sequence being the best example. No obvious edge enhancement to note, and aside from a few minor specks here and there no real print damage to speak of. This is a very nice transfer of some great looking source material.
The English language audio is offered up in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, though a dubbed version is offered in French DTS-HD 2.0. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH and Spanish. The original Mono track has not been included here, and that's a shame (there's quite a bit of leftover space on the 50GB disc used for this release, so it definitely should have been possible to do this without sacrificing the transfer) but at least the 5.1 track sounds good. Clarity and range are pretty strong and Dee Barton's ominous and haunting score has more depth and presence than it ever did on DVD. Dialogue is clean and easy to follow and there are no issues with hiss or distortion. Universal hasn't gone overboard with the remix here, most of what we hear still comes from the front and center of the mix but some occasional directional effects come from the surrounds. The audio here is fine, but yeah, purists will probably be a bit annoyed at the absence of the mono track, and that's pretty understandable.
Aside from menus and chapter selection, the only extra is the film's theatrical trailer. Included inside the case, however, is a download code for an Ultra Violet digital copy version of the movie. It's a shame that Universal didn't do more here, as this is touted as a ‘40th Anniversary Edition,' but that's the way it goes.
High Plains Drifter may wear its influences plainly on its sleeve but that doesn't take away from the fact that it is a very well made and ridiculously dramatic western with loads of style and atmosphere. Eastwood's performance is strong, he's quite intense here, and the movie is nicely paced and beautifully shot. If it isn't the most original film in the world, it is a hardboiled and violent story packed with excitement and tension and it makes for great entertainment. Universal's Blu-ray release disappoints in the extras department and curiously omits the original sound mix but makes up for that with a beautiful transfer. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.