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High Plains Drifter (Special Edition)
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 shootout 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 does 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 Region A Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studios in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 with the feature given 32.7GBS of space on the 50GB disc. This looks like it was taken from the same master prepared for Universal Studio's 2013 release (there's no mention anywhere on the packaging of this being a new scan), which is fine, as that transfer was excellent, but the feature is given more breathing room here (the Universal disc gave the feature just a hair under 30GBs of space). 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 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 been dark a little on previous releases 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.
16-bit English language DTS-HD options are provided in 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 options. Optional English Subtitles are provided in English only. For comparison's sake, the previously mentioned Universal disc included only a DTS-HD 5.1 track (as well as a French DTS 2.0 Stereo mix and subtitles in English, French and Spanish) but it was 24-bit. The 5.1 track offers some nice surround usage in the front and rear channels, using the subwoofer to give gunshots a bit more kick. The 2.0 track is the original mix, and the one that purists will likely opt for as it sounds more natural. Both tracks sound clean and clear and are nicely balanced, with no audible problems with any hiss or distortion worth complaining about.
Extras start off with a new audio commentary by Filmmaker Alex Cox, who has done some great work for Kino over the last few years on some of their Spaghetti Western titles, making him a good fit for this movie as well. He speaks, in his typically relaxed tone, about the impressive opening scene of the film, describing the picture as a ‘gothic western' before then offering up details on The Malpaso Company, the focus on Eastwood's character in the movie, the importance of the art director and cinematographer on this picture, background on Eastwood's work up to this point in the film and the importance of his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Cox also talks about the film's status as an homage to the Leone pictures, similarities between the rape scene in this picture and in The Outlaw, how he feels the film could have been trimmed a bit and been more effective for it, the quality of the ‘dark, edgy lighting' used in the picture, the portrayal of the corrupt townspeople in the film and how this makes the film differ from the Leone pictures, the quirky but effective qualities of the soundtrack, details on some of the supporting players that populate the picture and quite a bit more. There's a bit more dead air here than they probably should have been but Cox is generally strong here and quite interesting to listen to.
Kino has also provided three new featurettes, the first of which is an interview with Actress Marianna Hill that runs for fourteen-minutes entitled Lady Vengeance. She talks about her characters immorality and how it makes her more interesting. She also talks about her mother's connections to Joan Crawford which led to her getting put into one of her pictures, how she met Eastwood first when he was working on Joe Kidd but didn't get the part, what he's like to work with as both an actor and a director, her own thoughts on the film and westerns in general, the costuming in the film, how she felt that the rest of the cast had really ‘done their homework' and a fair bit more.
Up next is Actor Mitchell Ryan in an eight-minute interview entitled Hell To Pay and which was shot via video conferencing due to Covid-19 restrictions. He speaks about what sets the picture apart from typical westerns, comparing it to The Ox-Bow Incident, meeting Eastwood for the first time when auditioning for him fifty-years ago, what it was like shooting on location and having to stay in costume for the duration, his thoughts on his character who is first and foremost an opportunist, having to only do one shot for a second take but how it was a rather difficult one, getting along with the other cast members and other bits and pieces related to his work on the picture, including how he still gets paychecks from it due to its enduring popularity.
The third interview is with Actor William O'Connell entitled The Barber Of Lago and it clocks in at just over sixteen-minutes in length. O'Connell, who has a great sense of humor, talks about his family and education before then talking about how he got into acting in the first place and wound up in Glasgow, Scotland after the Second World War and what it was like meeting Alec Guinness. He gets around to talking about meeting Eastwood for the first time, and what it was like working with him on a few films, including, obviously, High Plains Drifter. He talks about the importance of the score in the film, the sets that were built for the movie and the locations that were used, thoughts on his character, getting along with the other cast members in the picture, seeing what his performance was like right away due to having someone shoot video while the movie was being made, the tight six-week shooting schedule and loads more.
All three of these featurettes are nicely edited, well put together and genuinely interesting.
Additionally, a vintage promotional featurette entitled A Man Named Eastwood is included here, running just over seven-minutes in length. This piece talks about Eastwood's rise to fame as well as his background and life before film, the importance of the Dollars Trilogy and how Eastwood functions as both leading man and director on High Plains Drifter. There's some great footage here of Eastwood in action, it's pretty cool to see.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are two Trailers From Hell entries, one with Josh Olsen and the other with Edgar Wright, both of which are worth watching and quite interesting. Also provided is a pretty extensive poster and image gallery, two different theatrical trailers (which Kino has seen fit to give new high definition transfers to, which is a nice touch), a TV spot, a radio spot, menus and chapter selection. Bonus trailers for A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Two Mules For Sister Sara and Joe Kidd, all available from Kino, are also provided.
As to how the release is packaged, the first pressing comes with a limited edition slipcover that features the iconic original poster art on the front, in addition to a reversible inner cover sleeve that has that same poster art on the front and an alternate poster image on the reverse.
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. Kino Lorber has done a great job rolling out the red carpet for this one, giving this classic western the special edition treatment that it has always deserved.
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.