Technically not a spaghetti western
but might as well be one. It's an American co-production between Universal Pictures
and Eastwood's own company Malpaso
. High Plains Drifter
(1972) was only the second film directed by Clint Eastwood
(the first western
). It's clear his tenure with the great Sergio Leone
taught him a lot. Eastwood's other major influence is Don Siegel
, with whom he made several films. It is Siegel's characteristic economy of style mixed with the work of Leone that helps make it all work. And work surprisingly well.
Once again he plays a taciturn stranger with (apparently) no name, similar to the Dollars trilogyalthough this stranger has a bit more in common with the mysterious "preacher" of 1985's Pale Rider (also directed by Eastwood). In fact, he refuses to give anyone his name. When asked what he said his name was, he answers "I didn't." He won't sign the hotel register and doesn't give the last of the killers the satisfaction of knowing who just shot him. But we suspect we know.
He comes riding out of the desert to find the small town of Lago on the shore of a lake (of course). That kind of tiny, one street town that you see in spaghetti westerns. All dusty and quiet and the sort that makes you wonder how it survives. There's a mining company (no actual mining is ever seen) which you later find out is mixed up with the troubles that have left the town suspicious and guilt-ridden.
"Hysterics? I can remember some hysterics one night not too long ago." Something happened in Lago. Something the whole town is responsible for. And somehow the Stranger (as he is listed in the credits) is related to it. He has recurring dreams of a Marshal getting whipped to death while an entire town looks ona Marshal who had a deal with the town (presumably something to do with the mine which we find is partly on government land). A Marshal that was planning on turning in that information.
No one seems to have wanted the murder but were complicit in it; they watched, they did nothing, and then hid it afterward (burying him in an unmarked grave). But there is, along with the unspoken guilt, an unspoken sense that maybe it had to happen that way. But when he asked who did it, the Stranger is told that it wasn't anyone from town, that "these are good people," a "God-fearing town," and "God-fearing people."
The men who killed the Marshal (former trouble-shooters hired by the town) are getting out of prison. In the meeting where they make the decision to hire the Stranger (the gunfighters they had hired for the job were killed by him shortly after he arrived) we learn that the "whole town had a hand in what happened" and that if "one hangs, we all hang."
The Stranger accepts but on condition he have "whatever he wants." He lets Indians have candy and blankets for free (something that further makes the character ambiguous considering the rape he commits early on in the movie). He has the best food and clothes, a new saddle, makes everyone else move out of the hotel, makes the dwarf (one of the only townsfolk who seems somewhat blameless) sheriff and mayor. He tries teaching the people how to ambush the gang (they are hopelessly incompetant). He also has them build picnic tables and create a special feast for them (at the entrance of the town, a banner proclaiming "WELCOME HOME BOYS" is hung). And finally, he requests 200 gallons of red paint and has the town painted red (even the outhouse).
"This town is going to look like hell." The Stranger actually paints the word HELL over the name on the sign leading to town. The symbolism and allusion are almost heavy-handed at times. The first nonmusical sound other than gulls and the horse is the sound of a whipcrack. The Marshal shouts his dying words: "Damn you all to hell!" (not just at the killers but at the whole town). When discussing the gang's release, someone says that they will "burn this town to the ground." Before a poorly executed attempt at getting rid the Stranger (because the way he's running the town into the ground through his apparent capricious requests) it's said that "it couldn't have been worse if the devil himself rode into Lago." At one point, he's told (speaking of the Marshal and his interment) that "they say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind."
The "boys" show up and proceed to wreak havoc with the townspeople (the Stranger told some Mexicans that they weren't invited to the "fiesta"since they weren't part of the gang or those who stood by and watched the murder). It's night and the gang has the surviving people in the saloon, while planning its revenge for putting them in prison. The first thing you notice is the flames beginning to devour the other buildings through the windows. Then a whip yanks one of the gang members through the batwing doors. Too stunned the other two don't act while the man is whipped and strangled against a backdrop of flames (you know, in a town renamed hell?). They both go out to kill the Stranger. He takes care of each of them, in turn.
The following morning, half the buildings are burnt out and some of the people are leaving. The Stranger has exacted vengence on both the killers and the town. On his way out of town, he passes the dwarf who is making a grave marker. He says "I never did get your name." The Stranger replies "Yes, you did." As he rides away, the camera pulls back revealing the marker that reads Jim Duncan (the Marshal). No devil, nor avenging angel, he fades off back into the desert.
Somehow Eastwood (the actor and director) is able to hold everything together instead of it becoming the mess it probably would have in the hands of your average spaghetti western director. Eerie and compelling viewing.