Cinema: Low Pun

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High Plains Drifter is the one about the corrupt town that hires a stranger who is fast with his gun and slow with his lip to protect itself from the consequences of its own venality and hypocrisy. In this instance it is a gang of murderous psychopaths who once did the dirty work of the town's leading citizens, were doublecrossed by them and now intend to vengefully sack the place.

It is a classic western situation but unfortunately, Writer Tidyman and Director Eastwood (who also plays the title role) understand that one man's classic is another's cliché−and are anxious to make sure we know they know. Therefore they stress the mythic overtones that pop cultists are always finding in the standard western forms. All the ritual scenes−Eastwood's menacing entrance ride down Main Street, the saloon confrontation and the barbershop Shootout that establish his credentials as a law-and-order man−are handled so that the emphasis is on archetypicality rather than on believable action.

The supporting players−a cowardly sheriff, the good woman, the bad woman, an exceedingly pious preacher, the cowardly and manipulative town fathers and even a friendly midget (Billy Curtis)−are stylized rather than characterized. As befits a star's role, The Stranger (he is carefully given no proper name) is a little more complicated.

Part of the time The Stranger is Dirty Harry in cowboy boots, a good cop trying to do his duty in a world ungrateful for his sadistic efforts. Part of the time he is Christ reincarnated; in another life (a recurring dream informs us), he suffered a version of Calvary inflicted on him by this very town. Since the citizenry so painfully rejected his previous efforts at salvation, it develops that this second attempt is actually a form of punishment for their earlier transgressions. Heavy stuff, and never more ludicrously so than when he forces them to literally paint their town red while he renames it on the welcoming signboard−HELL, of course.

This desperate inventiveness does not make a familiar tale interesting. It simply weighs it down under a load of cacophonously clanking symbols. As a director, Eastwood is not as good as he seems to think he is. As an actor, he is probably better than he allows himself to be. Meanwhile, the best you can say for High Plains Drifter is that the title is a low pun. Rarely are humble westerns permitted to drift around on such a highfalutin plane. That, however, is small comfort as this cold, gory and overthought movie unfolds.