This dark, dark 1973 Western was Clint Eastwood’s second directorial effort (after Play Misty for Me)—and man, oh man, does it contain some nasty stuff.
The film works as an ode to Eastwood’s Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns by taking the Man With No Name from those films, changing him into “The Stranger,” and giving his surroundings a more Americanized look. (Eastwood shot most of the film on a set constructed on the shores of Northern California’s Mono Lake.)
Within minutes of rolling into the old Western town of Lago, The Stranger kills a bunch of men while getting a shave; he rapes a woman soon thereafter. In other words, he’s not trying to win any popularity contests. Eastwood ambiguously suggests that The Stranger could be the ghost of a man the townsfolk killed—or the devil personified.
The Stranger, after displaying his powers with a gun, is coaxed into protecting the townspeople from some soon-to-be-released prisoners. The finale, in which The Stranger has trained the residents to defend themselves, might’ve been the inspiration for the similar ending to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.
This is the film that stopped many Hollywood types from sending family-movie scripts to Eastwood, although he did get a little more family-friendly for Every Which Way But Loose in ’78.
Speaking of which: I remember a big family discussion that resulted from my request to see Loose with my parents back in the day. (It had a big monkey in it!) My mother fought the idea, claiming that Eastwood was some sort of obscene, despicable actor. High Plains Drifter might’ve had something to do with her opinion.
Of course, Eastwood has managed to take a few nicer roles since then, so we today look at him as a great American actor, as opposed to a scary provocateur. I rank this as his second-best Western after Unforgiven.
Special Features: While this film looks great on Blu-ray, there are no special features.