Film: High Plains Drifter
1973 Supernatural Deconstructionist
Western starring and directed by Clint Eastwood
In the Old West, a mysterious drifter
referred to only as 'the Stranger' rides into a dismal little mining town called Lago, which is facing a crisis: three ruthless outlaws are making their way to the town to settle scores for an old wrong the townspeople did to them. After the Stranger kills the gunmen the cowardly townspeople had hired to protect them, the elders of the town decide to hire the Stranger to act as their protector, a role the Stranger only agrees to take after his bizarre demands — among them, that the town be painted red and renamed 'Hell' — are met.
As the Stranger begins to train the townsfolk to take arms and the outlaws draw ever closer, the hidden secrets and corruptions of the town begin to unravel, and the truth behind their feud with the outlaws and their culpability in the death of a federal marshal — with whom the Stranger has a connection — begin to be revealed...
High Plains Drifter provides examples of:
- Always Chaotic Evil: The Three Gunmen. When they see the "Welcome Party," they proceed to smash up the table and destroy all the food instead of simply stealing and eating it. When they corner most of the townspeople in the saloon, the leader Stacey Bridges goes the extra mile, by only having one swig of a bottle of whiskey then smashing that bottle and demanding another.
- Apathetic Citizens: Of all the people in Lago, only the hotelier's wife cared enough to try and stop the murder of the marshal.
- As You Know: Some awkward dialogue between Sarah and Lewis, establishing that the marshal was killed because he was going to close down the mine.
- Bad Ass: The Stranger, so very, very much. Then again, it is Clint Eastwood.
- Battle Amongst the Flames: Although it's not so much a battle as a massacre.
- Between My Legs: Callie is framed this way, between the Stranger's legs, after he rapes her.
- Cast as a Mask: To support the ambiguity about The Stranger's identity, when the marshal's murder is shown, he's played by Buddy van Horn, a stunt double for Eastwood.
- Clint Squint
- Crapsack World: Lago is a dumpy little town populated by a bunch of amoral cowards.
- Dirty Coward: Most of the townspeople.
- The Drifter: Although it's played with; the Drifter in this case isn't interested in helping the townspeople so much as punishing them, along with the killers of the marshal, for their inactivity and culpability in the marshal's death.
- Especially Zoidberg: "Even the church?" "I mean especially the church!"
- Fake in the Hole: With a stick of dynamite instead of a grenade. Everyone scatters, the fuse goes down, but nothing happens.
- Flashback: To the murder of the marshal.
- Foreshadowing: When the Stranger rides into town, a couple of drivers are about to haul away a wagon of lumber. One driver uses his whip to start the horses, and the Stranger looks up quickly at the sound of the whip's crack. This ties in with the later scene of the marshal being whipped to death.
- Go Seduce My Archnemesis: Callie appears to willingly sleep with the Stranger a second time, but it turns out it was a ploy by Morgan to get his guard down so that he and his gang could kill the Stranger in his bed. It doesn't work, naturally.
- Grey and Grey Morality: And while it might not ever reach black, the grey gets very dark on both sides.
- The Gunslinger: Of course. The Stranger is a combination of Type A and Type D, although it could just be everyone else's incompetence making him look better.
- Hitler Cam: The Stranger from Verna's perspective after he rapes her.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Louis's excuse for letting the marshal die.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Particularly bad is the scene where Callie ambushes the Stranger while he's taking a bath, unarmed, and fires several shots at him. She's standing less than 8 feet away from him, but he simply ducks under the water and comes out completely unscathed. Of course, another possibility is that the Stranger is a supernatural being.
- Impromptu Tracheotomy: How Morgan dies.
- Ironic Echo Cut: After the Stranger tells the townspeople to literally paint their town red, one of them says, "When we get done, this place is gonna look like hell." The Stranger is then shown painting "HELL" over the Lago town sign.
- Karmic Death The three gunmen all get what they deserve, particularly the first one to die— whipped to death the same way the marshal was.
- Kick the Dog or Kick the Bitch, depending on how you feel about Callie.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Eastwood has said in interviews that the original script identified the Stranger as the dead marshal's brother, but he deliberately played it ambiguously. One very popular theory is that the Stranger is actually the ghost of the marshal. Another interpretation is that he is some sort of avenging angel or demon. The film does not really say.
- Meaningful Name: Make the "L" in the town's name lower case, you get something resembling Iago, a character who by some interpretations of the play is the Devil himself.
- No Name Given: He's even called The Stranger in the credits.
- Not If They Enjoyedit Rationalization: The Stranger's defense when Sarah accuses him of raping Callie—and she did seem to enjoy it, although she turns homicidal again afterward.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: Essentially the Stranger's M.O.
- Pet the Dog: The Stranger shows his heart of gold towards the discriminated part of the town at a couple different points; when the townspeople agree to give him anything he wants for free in exchange for his help, he gives free jars of candy to two Native American children and a pile of blankets to their father, who'd just been called 'savages' and told to get out of the store for not having money. He also appoints the town midget and Butt Monkey Mordecai as mayor and sheriff.
- Also, while setting the ambush for the three outlaws, he tells a group of Mexicans to prepare some long tables for a "picnic". When they ask if they can come to the "fiesta", he says no. While seemingly an act of meanness, particularly in the way he said it, in truth he wants them to stay out of harm's way.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Stranger really does a number on the town.
- Sinister Minister: One who talks of piety but is just as corrupt as the rest of the town leaders.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: The Stranger and Sarah have Slap Slap Passionate Sex.
- Sociopathic Hero: The first thing The Stranger does when he rides into town is shoot a group of people and then rape a woman. But he's the protagonist.
- Shout-Out: The Hotel Manager attempting to shoot the Stranger in the back after he's killed all the gunmen is remarkably similar to the remaining Rojo brother trying to shoot The Man With No Name in the back after he's killed everybody else in A Fistful of Dollars. In both cases the friend of Eastwood's character shoots the gunman before he can fire.
- There are two headstones in the graveyard reading Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. This was Eastwood's tribute to the two (then living) directors who shaped his career.
- Stuff Blowing Up: The Stranger always inexplicably has a stick of dynamite on hand.
- Taking Over the Town: The combination of the townsfolks' panic over the three gunfighters, and his own deadliness, allows the Stranger to basically rule the town.
- A Taste of the Lash: Marshal Jim Duncan is whipped to death. Later the fate of one of the three gunmen.
- Town with a Dark Secret: After their marshal discovered that their mine was on government land, which would have forced the closing of the mine, the townspeople hired three gunfighters to murder him.
- Training the Peaceful Villagers: Except here, the villagers aren't so much 'peaceful' as 'Dirty Cowards'. And they're terrible at learning how to fight. And the Stranger isn't really interested in training them, but really is setting them up to be curb stomped by the three criminals.
- Weird West: Though it's kept mostly to a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane level.
- What the Hell, Townspeople?: The townspeople did this to the marshal in the backstory of the movie. Which makes it a case of turnabout-equalling-fair-play when the Stranger inverts the trope by doing it to the townspeople.
- White Man's Burden: The Native American family that shows up for a very brief scene exists just to look helpless while The Stranger stands up for them.
- Yes-Man: Mordecai to the Stranger. And to the other townspeople before the Stranger shows up.