High Plains Drifter is a 1973 American Western film, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and produced by Robert Daley for The Malpaso Company and Universal Studios. Eastwood plays a mysterious gunfighter hired by the residents of a corrupt frontier mining town to defend them against a group of criminals. The film was influenced by the work of Eastwood's two major collaborators, film directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The film was shot on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. The screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, who also wrote the novelization. Dee Barton provided the eerie film score. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of its initial release and still is, holding a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
A stranger on horseback rides into the mining town of Lago. Three gun-toting men follow him into the saloon, taunting him. When they follow him to the barbershop and threaten him, the Stranger shoots and kills all three of them. Impressed with this performance, a dwarf named Mordecai, who works in the barbershop, befriends the Stranger. An attractive woman named Callie Travers bumps into the Stranger in the street on purpose and insults and badgers him. When she slaps his cigar from his mouth, he drags her into the livery stable and rapes her. Next, he rents a room at the hotel. That night, he dreams about a man being brutally whipped.
It is revealed later that Marshal Jim Duncan was whipped to death by gunfighters Stacey Bridges, Dan Carlin, and Cole Carlin while the people of Lago looked on. Only Sarah Belding, wife of hotelier Lewis Belding, made any attempt to rescue him. A corrupt faction in Lago wanted Duncan dead, as the Marshal discovered that the town's mine is on government ground (the townsfolk feared that this news, if reported, would result in the mine being closed, which would threaten the town's livelihood).
Sheriff Sam Shaw tells the Stranger he will not be charged for killing the three men. Meanwhile, the townsmen discuss Bridges and the Carlin brothers, who are due to be released from prison that day. The town double-crossed the three gunfighters after they killed Duncan, and the men are expected to seek vengeance. Since the men slain by the Stranger were the mining company's new protectors, the townsmen decide to hire the Stranger as their replacement.
Presenting the offer to the Stranger, Shaw explains that the three gunfighters were caught stealing gold from the mining company, although he admits the gold was poorly protected. The Stranger declines the job until Shaw tells him he can have anything he wants. Accepting these terms, the Stranger indulges in the town's goods and services, and makes Mordecai both sheriff and mayor. He also has Belding's clients moved out of the hotel, dismantles Belding's barn in order to make picnic benches, has the entire town painted red, and paints the word "HELL" on the "LAGO" sign just outside of town.
While the Stranger trains the townspeople to defend themselves, Bridges and the Carlin brothers are released from prison and make their way to Lago. They begin on foot but kill three men and take their horses.
A group of townsfolk try to ambush the Stranger in the hotel, but he kills all but one of them. After Belding inadvertently divulges his complicity in the attack (which left the hotel destroyed), the Stranger drags Sarah Belding into their room, and she sleeps with him willingly. The next morning, Sarah tells the Stranger about Duncan's murder, and how Duncan was buried in an unmarked grave. She remarks, "They say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind."
The Stranger rides out the next morning. Sarah intends to leave Lago and her husband. The Stranger finds the gunfighters, and has a brief shootout with them before returning to Lago. With the town painted red, townsmen with rifles stationed on rooftops, and a picnic and welcoming banner set up for the gunfighters, the Stranger mounts his horse and rides away. When the gunfighters arrive, they easily overcome the paltry resistance offered by the townspeople, killing several of the town's corrupt civic leaders. By nightfall, they have the townspeople collected in the saloon while the barber shop and other buildings burn. The Stranger returns, and kills the gunfighters one by one, whipping Cole Carlin to death, hanging Dan Carlin with another whip, and shooting Stacey Bridges. Bridges' last words to the Stranger are "Who are you?!" – but the Stranger doesn't answer him. Belding attempts to shoot the Stranger in the back – but Mordecai shoots Belding first.
The next day, the Stranger departs, slowly riding through the ruined town in the same manner that he arrived at the film's beginning. At the cemetery, he passes by Mordecai, who is carving a fresh headstone. Mordecai comments to the departing Stranger that he never did know his name, to which the Stranger replies cryptically, "Yes, you do." As the Stranger rides out, it is revealed that the headstone engraved by Mordecai reads "MARSHAL JIM DUNCAN, REST IN PEACE."
The Stranger rides off into the distance, his image absorbed by a mirage, seemingly vanishing into thin air.
- Clint Eastwood as The Stranger
- Verna Bloom as Sarah Belding
- Mariana Hill as Callie Travers
- Billy Curtis as Mordecai
- Mitchell Ryan as Dave Drake
- Jack Ging as Morgan Allen
- Stefan Gierasch as Mayor Jason Hobart
- Ted Hartley as Lewis Belding
- Geoffrey Lewis as Stacey Bridges, outlaw
- Dan Vadis as Dan Carlin, outlaw
- Anthony James as Cole Carlin, outlaw
- Walter Barnes as Sheriff Sam Shaw
- Paul Brinegar as Lutie Naylor
- Richard Bull as Asa Goodwin
- Robert Donner as Preacher
- John Hillerman as Bootmaker
- John Quade as Freight Wagon Operator
- Buddy Van Horn as Marshal Jim Duncan
- William O'Connell as the Barber
- Scott Walker as Bill Borders, outlaw
The nine-page proposal for the screenplay of High Plains Drifter came to Clint Eastwood's attention at Universal. Eastwood liked the story's offbeat quality, and approached Universal with the idea of directing it. Under a joint production between Malpaso and Universal, the original High Plains Drifter screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, an acclaimed writer who had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The French Connection. Tidyman's screenplay was inspired by reports of the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, where people ignored the killing of a young woman inQueens in 1964. Holes in the plot were filled in with black humor and allegory, influenced by Sergio Leone. An uncredited rewrite of the script was provided by Dean Riesner, screenwriter of other Eastwood projects.
Universal wanted Eastwood to shoot the feature on their own back lot, but Eastwood opted instead to film on location. Eastwood scouted locations for filming in a pickup truck while driving alone through Oregon, Nevada, and California. 300 miles from Hollywood, Eastwood had an entire town built on the shores of Mono Lake for the project, as he considered the area "highly photogenic". Over 40 technicians and 10 construction workers built the town in 18 days using 150,000 feet of timber. The town of Lago comprised fourteen houses and one two-storey hotel. Complete buildings, rather than facades, were built, so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on the site. Additional scenes were filmed at Reno, Nevada's Winnemucca Lake and California's Inyo National Forest. Eastwood filmed High Plains Drifter in sequence. Filming was completed in only six weeks, two days ahead of schedule, and under budget.
Eastwood has noted that the graveyard set featured in the film's finale had tombstones reading "Sergio Leone" and "Don Siegel", intended as a humorous tribute to the two directors. The character of Marshal Duncan was played by the stuntman Buddy Van Horn, a long-time stunt coordinator for Clint Eastwood, in order to create some ambiguity as to whether he and the Stranger are one and the same. During an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, Eastwood commented that earlier versions of the script made the Stranger the dead marshal's brother. He favored a less explicit and more supernatural interpretation, however, and excised the reference, although the Italian, Spanish,French and German dubbings restore it.
Universal released the R-rated High Plains Drifter in the US in April 1973, and the film eventually grossed $15.7 million domestically, ultimately making it the sixth-highest grossing Western in North America in the decade of the 1970s and the 20th highest grossing film released in 1973. John Wayne, however, disdained High Plains Drifter and its iconoclastic approach, writing Eastwood a letter declaring, "That isn't what the West was all about. That isn't the American people who settled this country." The film received positive reception from critics, and has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, they did have some criticisms. A number of critics thought Eastwood's directing derivative; Arthur Knight inSaturday Review remarked that Eastwood had "absorbed the approaches of Siegel and Leone and fused them with his own paranoid vision of society". Jon Landau of Rolling Stone concurred, remarking that it is his thematic shallowness and verbal archness which is where the film fell apart, yet he expressed approval of the dramatic scenery and cinematography.
Eastwood reflected on the film's meaning, indicating "it's just an allegory...a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town's conscience to bear. There's always retribution for your deeds."