“High Plains Drifter” was the first Western directed by Clint Eastwood but he was already showing signs of the revisionism that would shape his finest effort in the genre, “Unforgiven”. What could have been a simple tale of revenge is elevated to a whole other level by Ernest Tidyman’s quirky script and Eastwood’s assured direction.

Eastwood essentially retains his “stranger with no name” persona from the Spaghetti Westerns he made with Sergio Leone but a supernatural element is what sets “High Plains Drifter” apart from those films.

Clint Eastwood’s stranger rides into the town of Lago

A stranger rides into the mining town of Lago, with Dee Barton’s eerie music and the heightened sound effects – the whistling wind and the wheezing of the stranger’s horse – creating a sense of foreboding. In the space of 15 minutes, the stranger shoots dead three gunfighters and has his way with the town floozy Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) in a barn.

The town is located in idyllic surroundings (Eastwood had an entire town built on the beautiful shore of Mono Lake in California) but its residents appear rotten to the core. They all harbour dark secrets and the stranger has a mysterious connection to Lago which becomes apparent through his fevered nightmares of the town’s marshal being brutally whipped to death. 

The killing of the three gunfighters puts the people of Lago in an unusual predicament – they had been hired to protect the town from a trio of outlaws (Geoffrey Lewis, Don Vadis and Anthony James) who harbour a grudge against the town and are due to be freed from prison.

In desperation, the townspeople decide to ask the stranger to protect Lago. He accepts, on the condition that he can have anything he wants.

The stranger appoints the midget Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the new sheriff and mayor of Lago, raises a rag-tag militia comprising the barber, storekeeper and others to defend the town and takes over the hotel after throwing out all the guests. To the consternation of everyone, the stranger then forces the people to paint the whole of Lago red, renames it Hell and forces them to prepare for a picnic on the day the outlaws are due to arrive.

When the outlaws do ride in, the stranger leaves Lago at their mercy. But since this is a Clint Eastwood movie, we know he’ll be back. 

Though “High Plains Drifter” was only Eastwood’s second film as a director, he tackles things like a pro, which isn’t surprising given his long association with Westerns. Eastwood toys with all the conventions of Westerns and it is only the intelligent script by Tidyman (who won an Oscar for writing “The French Connection”) that keeps this from turning into a parody of Eastwood’s “man with no name” persona.

One question most people ask after watching “High Plains Drifter” is who exactly is the character played by Eastwood. The actor-director has said the stranger was originally written as the brother of the dead marshal of Lago. Eastwood even described the film as an extension of “High Noon”, where too the townspeople didn’t back the sheriff, and stranger and makes sure that they live with their guilt. Eastwood also said he played the stranger “more as an apparition” because that would leave some uncertainty for the audience.

“High Plains Drifter” is available in a decent anamorphic transfer on a Region 1 DVD box set that includes the Westerns “Joe Kidd” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. The image can appear a little soft at times as “High Plains Drifter” shares space with another movie on one disc of the two DVD set.