The small mining town of Lago which has recently lost its Marshal in mysterious circumstances nobody is about to admit to, is under threat from three outlaws and is looking for help. Then a nameless stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides down the high street and doesn't waste much time in shooting down three local bullies who try to pick a fight with him after an encounter in the local saloon bar - could the town have found their saviour? A vigilante who will sort out the peril once and for all? Or is he their Nemesis?
Eastwood had already made his directorial debut with the thriller Play Misty for Me in 1971, but for his second film in the driving seat he returned to the Western genre that had made him famous, arguably with that same character into the bargain. Shaft author Ernest Tidyman's screenplay was inspired by the real-life Kitty Genovese murder, where people ignored the killing of a young woman one night (even turning up the volume on their televisions to drown out her screams), but with uncredited script additions by Dean Reisner, High Plains Drifter became a more mythic tale.
By taking the traditional "town with a guilty secret" cliché of many a past Western, Eastwood and company created a cynical story where, not only did the townsfolk stand by and allow their Marshal to die at the hands of the trio of outlaws, but they are also directly responsible for his demise, though it is rather vague as to their motive for wishing the Marshal out of the picture. And that's not all that brings down vengeance upon them: their willingness to let others do their dirty work without taking responsibility for their own wrongs also implicates them, that hypocritical lack of accepting their own cowardice and indeed immorality when they claim to be the opposite.
Eastwood plays one of his nastiest characters: a twist on The Man With No Name, he calmly and contemptuously sets himself up as head of the town while making its lowliest citizen, Mordecai the dwarf (Billy Curtis) who had wanted to prevent the Marshal's death by whipping, into the sheriff and mayor, renaming it Hell, painting it red (literally) and effortlessly destroying all who oppose him as he turns Lago's self-inflicted need for a saviour against them. Is he an avenging angel or the ghost of the dead sheriff? Or both? Some even say he was Satan himself claiming the souls of the locals, though he may not have a supernatural explanation at all and simply be the dead man's brother.
The Stranger's treatment of women is problematic. When he rapes a woman (Mariana Hill) who deliberately crosses him to teach her "manners", are we supposed to think she deserved it (she's in cahoots with the villains) or is it to show the lack of guts the town leaders have in not standing up to the Stranger's misdemeanours? Will they allow any moral outrage as long as things go their way? The other female character, Sarah (Verna Bloom) is one of the few decent people in the film, but even she reluctantly relents to the Stranger's dubious charms in a scene that appears to be an uneasy parody of the previous sexual assault at the beginning.
High Plains Drifter is a peculiar Western which almost sends up the genre with its sardonic humour, but has a slow, dreamlike-turning-nightmarish approach. It gets weird enough to almost be a comedy, and there were certainly some big laughs to be had at the townsfolk's expense. Add the plentiful violence and bizarre details and you have one of the strangest hits of the seventies, to its oddball credit really not like anything else even in its revisionist contemporaries and one that would be another addtion to Eastwood's interesting takes in his iconic screen roles which undercut his popular persona as a cinematic hero. The sole reason the Stranger is the hero here was that everyone else was so awful, Mordecai and Bloom's hotelier's wife character apart. Even they suffered in an Old Testament style - punishment for all bar the enigmatic visitor. Music by Dee Barton.
Becoming a superstar in the late 1960s gave Clint Eastwood the freedom to direct in the seventies. Thriller Play Misty for Me was a success, and following films such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales showed a real talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He won an Oscar for his downbeat Western Unforgiven, which showed his tendency to subvert his tough guy status in intriguing ways. Another Oscar was awarded for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which he also starred in.
Also a big jazz fan, as is reflected in his choice of directing the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Other films as director include the romantic Breezy, The Gauntlet, good natured comedy Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, OAPs-in-space adventure Space Cowboys, acclaimed murder drama Mystic River, complementary war dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and harrowing true life drama Changeling. Many considered his Gran Torino, which he promised would be his last starring role (it wasn't), one of the finest of his career and he continued to direct with such biopics as Jersey Boys and American Sniper to his name.