High Plains Drifter was a 1973 American Western movie with a hint of the supernatural. High Plains Drifter was directed by and starred the legend that is Clint Eastwood and produced by Robert Daley for The Malpaso Company and Universal Pictures. Eastwood plays a mysterious gunfighter hired by the residents of a corrupt frontier mining town to defend them against a group of criminals. The film was influenced by the work of Eastwood's two major collaborators Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The film was shot on location on the shores of Mono Lake, California. The screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman and an uncredited Dena Riesner. Tidyman wrote the novelization. Dee Barton provided the film's eerie musical score. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of its initial release and still is, holding a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The story depicts the efforts of a small mining town to defend itself against a group of rogue gunfighters with the help of a mysterious outsider, referred to as the Stranger. The town reveals its timidity and corruption when they hire the Stranger to protect them.
As the film begins, the Stranger rides into the fictional mining town of Lago, in a setting similar to the Arizona territory. Three gun-toting men follow him into the saloon and then the barber shop, taunting and ridiculing him, but when one of them swivels him around in the barber's chair, he shoots all three of them dead. Impressed with this performance, a Dwarf named Mordecai befriends the Stranger. Then an attractive townswoman named Callie Travers bumps into him in the street and insults and badgers him. When she slaps him, he drags her into the livery stable and rapes her. Next, he rents a room at the hotel. When he lies down to sleep, he remembers a scene in which a man is brutally whipped. It is revealed later that Marshal Jim Duncan was whipped to death by gunfighters Stacey Bridges, Dan Carlin, and Cole Carlin while the people of Lago looked on. Only Sarah Belding, wife of hotelier Lewis Belding, made any attempt to rescue Marshal Duncan.
The next day, Sherrif Shaw tells the stranger he will not be charged for killing the three men. Meanwhile, the townsmen discuss Bridges and the Carlin brothers, who are due to be released from prison that day. The town double-crossed the three gunfighters after they killed Duncan, who had discovered that the Lago Mining Company was operating on government land, and the men are expected to seek vengeance against the town. Since the men slain by the Stranger were the mining company's new protectors, the townsmen decide to hire the Stranger as their replacement.
Presenting the job offer to the Stranger, Shaw explains that the three gunfighters were caught stealing gold from the mining company, although he admits the gold was poorly protected, suggesting that the company's managers may have entrapped the men. The Stranger declines the job until Shaw tells him he can have anything he wants. Accepting these terms, the Stranger indulges in the town's products and services, makes Mordecai both sheriff and mayor, has the entire town painted red, and paints the word "HELL" on the "LAGO" sign just outside of town.
While the Stranger trains the townspeople to defend themselves, Bridges and the Carlin brothers are released from prison and make their way to Lago. They begin on foot but kill three other men on the way and take their horses.
At this point, the townsmen begin quarreling about the Stranger. A group of men try to kill him, but he escapes and kills most of them. After Belding inadvertently divulges his complicity in the attack, the Stranger drags Belding's wife into the Belding's room and she has sex with him willingly.
In the morning, the Stranger rides out and finds the gunfighters, has a brief shootout with them, and returns to Lago. With the town painted red, townsmen with rifles stationed on rooftops, and a picnic and welcoming banner set up for the gunfighters, the Stranger mounts his horse and rides out the back end of town. When the gunfighters arrive, they encounter almost no resistance at all, and by nightfall they have the townspeople collected in the saloon with the rest of the town in flames. However, the Stranger kills the gunfighters one by one, whipping and strangling Cole Carlin, hanging Dan Carlin with a bullwhip, and gunning down Bridges. In the only act of courage taken by any of the townspeople, Mordecai shoots Belding dead after Belding points his shotgun at the Stranger's back attempting to kill him.
The next day, the Stranger rides out of the ruined town as Mordecai carves a headstone for Duncan's grave.
High Plains Drifter was released in the United States in August 1973 and eventually grossed $8 million, landing it at the 11th position of the highest grossing 1970s westerns. John Wayne was offered a role in the film and was sent the script, but replied to Eastwood some weeks after the film was released, expressing disapproval, saying that "the townspeople did not represent the true spirit of the American pioneer, the spirit that made America great". The revisionist film received a mixed reception from critics but was a major box office success. A number of critics thought Eastwood's directing was as derivative as it was expressive with Arthur Knight in Saturday Review remarking that Eastwood had "absorbed the approaches of Siegel and Leone and fused them with his own paranoid vision of society". Jon Landau of Rolling Stone concurred, remarking that it is his thematic shallowness and verbal archness which is where the film fell apart, yet he expressed approval of the dramatic scenery and cinematography.
Eastwood reflected on the film's meaning, indicating "it's just an allegory...a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town's conscience to bear. There's always retribution for your deeds."