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Film / High Plains Drifter

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Mordecai: What did you say your name was again?
The Stranger: I didn't.
Mordecai: No. I guess you didn't at that, did you?

High Plains Drifter is a 1973 Western film directed by (and starring) Clint Eastwood, with a screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection, Shaft). It was Eastwood's second film, and first Western, as a director.

A mysterious drifter referred to only as "The Stranger" rides into the dismal mining town of Lago, which has a crisis on its hands: three ruthless gunmen are making their way to the town so they can settle scores over an old wrong done to them by the townspeople. After the Stranger kills a group of men hired by the cowardly townspeople to protect Lago, the town's elders decide to hire the Stranger as their protector. The Stranger only agrees to take up the role after the townspeople meet his bizarre demands, including painting all of the town's buildings red and rechristening the town itself as "Hell".

As the Stranger trains the townsfolk to take arms and the gunmen draw closer, all the hidden secrets and corruptions of the town begin to unravel, and the truth behind Lago's feud with the outlaws – and their culpability in the death of a federal marshal, with whom the Stranger has a connection – soon comes to light...

A Deconstruction of the Western genre with supernatural overtones, High Plains Drifter is one of Eastwood's most popular and acclaimed films.

High Plains Drifter contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Innocence: There's a sense that the whole town knows what happened to Marshal Duncan and why, but Luttie the bartender and a couple of other credited townspeople aren't specifically seen among the people watching him get whipped to death in the flashback.
  • Ambiguously Human: It's left unclear whether the Stranger is the brother of the dead marshall in Lago or the dead marshall's vengeful spirit. It's up to the viewer to decide.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Of all the people in Lago, only the hotelier's wife cared enough to try and stop the murder of the marshal.
  • Asshole Victim: Most of the people killed by the Stranger qualify. In fact, the only people to die who weren't assholes are Marshal Duncan, and a trio of innocent men who are robbed and murdered by the three outlaws on their way back to Lago.
  • Ass Shove: The Stranger threatens a guy with this. Wisely, the dude backs off.
  • As You Know: Some awkward dialogue between Sarah and Lewis establishes that the marshal was killed because he was going to close down the mine.
  • Badass Boast: Quoth the Stranger: "I'm a lot faster than you'll ever live to be."
  • Batman Gambit: The Stranger seems to know damn well that the City of Lago Volunteers are going to botch the ambush of Bridges and the Carlin boys, which will allow him to get retribution on both groups.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: The Stranger makes sure this isn't so much a battle as a massacre.
  • Between My Legs: Callie is framed this way — between the Stranger's legs — after he rapes her.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: It says a lot that The Stranger is established as a cold-blooded killer and rapist in the first ten minutes, and yet the audience ultimately takes his side because everyone else in the story except Mordecai and Sarah is so repugnant. It's that ambiguity that keeps The Stranger away from Villain Protagonist territory.
  • Book Ends: The Stranger emerging from/disappearing into the heat haze.
  • Boom, Headshot!: The Stranger takes out one of the three gunmen who harass him this way.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The three gunmen who were hired to defend the town harass and try to intimidate The Stranger. It doesn't end well for them.
  • Bystander Syndrome: The townsfolk while the marshal is being killed. Only Sarah makes any protest.
  • 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 (Eastwood's longtime stunt double).
  • Cigar Chomper: The Stranger. Well, he is played by Clint Eastwood.
  • Clint Squint: Some of the most iconic examples thereof.
  • Crapsack World: Lago is a dumpy little Old West town in the middle of nowhere that's populated by a bunch of amoral cowards.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The marshal's fate. Three men ambush him and slowly whip him to death while the whole town just watches. He repays this fate to one of the thugs.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Every time someone tries to kill the Stranger, one of these follows.
    • Calling the town's attempt to fend off the gunmen a 'battle' is a hilarious understatement: none of the townsfolk even fire a shot as the trio just rampage through town, destroying everything and even killing a couple of people along the way, all while Mordecai tries in vain to get the people to return fire and stick to the plan.
  • Dead All Along: A popular interpretation is that the Stranger is the ghost of the dead marshal, given that he relives the marshal's death, which he wasn't there for otherwise. There's also, of course, the last line of dialogue in the movie. "I never did know your name" "Yes you do", as the camera pans to show the previous marshal's gravestone and name. Supported by Eastwood casting his own stunt double as the dead marshal. He could also be some sort of avenging spirit as well. The original script identified him as the marshal's brother.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Turns out the kind of character Eastwood usually plays would be terrifying in real life. A seemingly invincible gunman with Improbable Aiming Skills, who seemingly knows everything you've done wrong, has a very strict sense of justice, and can't be stopped, only appeased? Yikes. Of course, the townspeople themselves aren't exactly innocent either...
  • Decoy Backstory: Implied. A mysterious drifter comes to a town ostensibly to help (but clearly seeking vengeance), and flashbacks show that the drifter looks like the town's previous Marshall, who was flogged to death by bandits while the townsfolk idly stood by. The original script had it that the drifter is the Marshall's brother, but in the finished film it is also possible that the drifter is the Marshall's ghost or else an avenging angel (or devil) taking the Marshall's form.
  • Dirty Coward: Most of the townspeople fall under this description and won't risk their lives no matter what.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • The town's solution to their quarrel with the marshal (having him whipped to death).
    • The Drifter's rape of Callie seems to be motivated by the fact she was rude to him.
  • The Drifter: The film plays with this trope; the Drifter in this case isn't interested in helping the townspeople so much as punishing them, along with the three gunmen, for their role in the marshal's death.
  • Due to the Dead: At the end of the movie, the murdered marshal gets his grave marker.
  • Especially Zoidberg: "You can't possibly mean the church!" "I mean especially the church!"
  • Even Evil Has Standards: During the flashback to Ducan's death, Callie and two men watching from inside their houses look shaken by Duncan's fate, while most other people seem unaffected or grimly pleased.
  • Evil Is Hammy: Whenever Stacey Bridges decides to pick up his Villain Ball, he tends to start Suddenly Shouting.
  • 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.
  • Genre Mashup: As many people have noted, this is basically a Horror movie done up in a Western framework, with The Stranger's supernatural undertones.
  • 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.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Lago is simply the Spanish word for "lake", appropriate for a town situated on a lake shore.
  • Grew a Spine: Mine owner Allen shows a cowardly streak during his attempts to kill the Stranger, as he uses both Callie and Sarah as human shields. But when he's captured by Stacey's gang and faces a painful death unless he hands over the combination to his safe, he replies "I wouldn't give you the combination to the gates of hell."
  • The Gunslinger: The Stranger is a combination of Trick Shooter and Quick-Draw, although it could just be everyone else's incompetence making him look better.
  • Hat Damage: The Stranger is training the townsfolk by having a wagon with dummies driven around so the townspeople can shoot at it. Annoyed by their A-Team Firing, he draws and shoots the heads off all the dummies, then shoots the hat off the driver for good measure. Another man standing behind The Stranger who's contemplating stabbing him In the Back suddenly decides he has urgent business elsewhere.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason why the townspeople had the marshal killed. He found out the mine was on government land and was going to report it, which would result in it being closed.
  • Hitler Cam: The Stranger from Callie's perspective after he rapes her.
  • Hysterical Woman: Callie Travers, the town prostitute, is understandably pissed off about being raped by the Stranger in broad daylight and tries to incite the cowardly townspeople to stand up to him. When her complains are dismissed as hysteria, she sarcastically reminds the man who said this (implied to be a client) that "I can remember some hysterics one night not too long ago!"
  • I Ate WHAT?!: Stacey and his men are rattled when the warden suggests he fed them meat from their horses during their incarceration, although they quickly decide he's probably lying to cover selling the horses and pocketing the money.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Louis' excuse for letting the marshal die when he threatened the towns property.
  • Idiot Ball: The townspeople have their ambush set up and ready, the gunmen ride into town, and what do they do? Cower down and refuse to shoot.
  • 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.
    • Averted by the Stranger, who never seems to miss.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Best shown when the Stranger shoots the heads off three target dummies in a moving cart in a matter of seconds, without shifting his position. Of course, there might be a very good reason his marksmanship is so inhumanly good...
  • Impromptu Tracheotomy: How Morgan dies.
  • In the Back: A man walks up behind The Stranger and starts to slip a knife out of its sheath. Without turning round, The Stranger informs him he'd look pretty stupid with that knife shoved up his ass. The man wisely backs off.
  • 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.
    • After Belding says "It couldn't be worse if the devil himself had ridden into Lago!" we cut to a shot of the Stranger, seemingly implying yet another possibility for who the Stranger might be.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Stacey and his two henchmen have a legitimate grievance against the residents of Lago, who set them up to go to jail soon after they killed the marshal for them.
  • Karmic Death: The three gunmen all get what they deserve, but the first one to die, Cole, is whipped to death just as the Marshal was. Flashbacks to Marshal Duncan's murder showed Cole wearing the biggest grin; he's definitely not smiling when he gets on the wrong end of the bullwhip, but his pathetic pleas for mercy earn him no pity from either audience.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Depending on how you feel about Callie.
    • More straightforward when Morgan punches out Mordecai.
  • Little People Are Surreal: Mordecai not only enjoys spying on the Stranger having sex, but is eventually given the dual title of sheriff and mayor.
  • Make an Example of Them: This was one of the motivations for having the marshal whipped to death in full public view, when they could have just given him an instant death with a gunshot.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Eastwood said in interviews that the original script explicitly identified the Stranger as the dead marshal's brother, but he deliberately played it ambiguously. One interpretation says the Stranger is the ghost of the marshal, while another says he's some sort of avenging angel (or demon). And of course, he may still just be the marshal's twin brother. The film itself never gives a definitive answer.
    • On the maybe magic side of the argument, an often-overlooked detail is that the Stranger rides a pale horse...
  • Meet Cute: Callie tries to deliberately engineer this by bumping into the Stranger. It doesn't end well.
  • Mercy Kill: Having murdered Morgan Allen, Stacey Bridges tells The Stranger that he was already dying from his arm wound and he just put him out of his misery.
  • Mysterious Past: The Stranger. Who is he and where did he come from? How is he connected to the former marshal? We never find out.
    • Dialogue earlier in the film, and the final scene with Mordecai strongly imply, however, that he's the vengeful ghost of marshal Duncan.
  • No Name Given: He's even called The Stranger in the credits.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: The Stranger uses this defense when Sarah accuses him of raping Callie — and she did seem to enjoy it, although she turns homicidal again afterward.
  • Not Quite Dead: Naturally, The Stranger fares better upon coming back from the dead (although at the very end, it seems that the character may actually have been a ghost playing a cruel game on both his killers, and the people who allowed it).
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The film ends with The Stranger riding away into desert until he disappears; it's a complete reversal of the opening, which showed him appearing seemingly out of nowhere and riding into the corrupt little town.
  • One-Hit Kill: The Stranger kills three men who confront him when he first enters town with one bullet apiece.
  • Paint the Town Red: When The Stranger takes over the duties of sheriff, he has the town painted red and renamed Hell before the shooting starts.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: This is 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 local Butt-Monkey) Mordecai as mayor and sheriff.
    • 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.
  • Pre-emptive Declaration: The Stranger tells a guy creeping up on him with a knife "You'll look real funny with that knife stuck up your ass". The guy wisely backs away.
  • Rape and Revenge: Callie tries this twice and it doesn't work out well for her.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The camera pans up right before the Stranger rapes Callie to teach her a lesson in manners.
  • Redshirt Army: The three gunmen hired to protect the town are all quickly dispatched by the Stranger.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Stranger really does a number on the town.
  • Scenery Porn: While maybe not conventionally scenic, Mono Lake, a salt lake located near the California/Nevada border, provides a memorable, picturesque setting for the film.
  • Sinister Minister: Lago's preacher is a man who talks of piety but is just as corrupt as the rest of the town's leaders.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: The Stranger and Sarah have Slap Slap Passionate Sex.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Right after The Stranger rides into town, he shoots a group of people, then rapes a woman. And 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 with the names of Don Siegel and Sergio Leone on them — a tribute from Eastwood to the two (then-living) directors who shaped his career.
  • Southern Gothic Satan: The Stranger is the maybe-brother-maybe-ghost of the Marshal the town whipped to death in order to keep their secret gold. He's back to taking advantage of the townsfolks' cowardice and greed by painting the town red, renaming the town Hell, and inflaming their quarrel with the outlaws until everyone's dead and everything's on fire.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The Stranger always inexplicably has a stick of dynamite on hand.
  • Stupid Evil: When the three gunmen 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 goes the extra mile by only having one swig of a bottle of whiskey before smashing the bottle and demanding another.
  • Taking Over the Town: The combination of the town's panic over the three gunfighters and The Stranger's deadliness allows said Stranger to rule the town.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Marshal Jim Duncan is whipped to death. One of the three gunmen shares his fate later in the film.
  • Terrible Trio: In addition to the main villains, there's the three goons who try and fail to intimidate The Stranger on his arrival.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: After a federal marshal discovered that Lago's mine was on government land (which would have forced the closing of the mine), the town hired three gunfighters to murder him.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: Except here, the villagers aren't so much "peaceful" as they are "Dirty Cowards". And they're terrible at learning how to fight. And the Stranger isn't really interested in training them; he wants to set them up for the three gunmen to practically slaughter.
  • Tsundere: Horribly gone wrong. It appears Callie wanted to flirt with the Drifter by bumping into him and insulting him. This is a horrible mistake.
  • Ungrateful Townsfolk: This happens before the beginning of the movie and is the basis for everything that happens during it. Including the subversion that happens before we actually learn this; after seemingly teaching the townsfolk to fight back against the evil bandits threatening the town, the 'hero' betrays the townspeople by abandoning them, letting the bandits have the run of the town before he returns to take his own vengeance on them.
  • Weird West: The film keeps this mostly to a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane level.
  • Wham Shot: While it doesn't exactly clear up the mystery of who The Stranger is, the dolly shot and zoom in the final scene showing Marshal Jim Duncan's name on the gravestone Mordecai just finished engraving after The Stranger tells him that he does in fact know The Stranger's name establishes at the very least that he came to town to avenge Duncan's death.
  • White Man's Burden: The Native American family that shows up for a very brief scene exists only to look helpless so The Stranger can stand up for them.
  • Yes-Man: Mordecai is this to the Stranger — and to the other townspeople before the Stranger shows up.