Monday, May 18, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

So from what "high plains" does Clint Eastwood's "stranger" drift? If it's supposed to be heaven-- and Eastwood, directing his second film, is said to have altered the Ernest Tidyman script to emphasize the supernatural-- then it's a heaven that's more than a little comfortable with the sins of rape and murder.

DRIFTER is clearly indebted to some of the darker visions of the Old West, like 1952's HIGH NOON and 1953's SHANE, in that DRIFTER focuses upon a lone gunfighter who metes out justice in a corrupt western town. But the towns are redeemable in the earlier films, and the hero's actions are meant to cut out the poisonous criminal elements and make possible new growth. The Stranger (Eastwood) comes to the town of Lago to destroy it for its complicity in the murder of a marshal-- who may or may not be identical with the Stranger-- and he leaves very little standing, any more than did the Biblical angels who visited the city of Sodom.

The narrative unfolds in elliptical fashion. Eventually the audience learns that the townspeople arranged for their marshal, one Jim Duncan, to be killed, and that they allowed the three killers who did the dirty work to be condemned to prison. Now the three owlhoots are on their way back to Lago for vengeance. The townspeople hire three other gunfighters to protect the town, but the protectors take a dislike to the Stranger, pick a fight with him, and are killed by the lone gun. The town must then turn to the Stranger for protection from the gunfighters, but the Stranger runs roughshod over the cowardly townsfolk even while training them to defend themselves. Only two people-- a dwarf named Mordecai and a woman named Sarah-- show any sort of decency, and when the Stranger has finally visited his vengeance on both the town and the killers, it's hard to say if even the two good people will enjoy any future. For this reason I deem HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER to be an "irony," in that it depicts a world that is either completely or almost beyond the sphere of morality and justice.

The aforementioned "sins of rape" are perhaps the most striking here, since they are both committed by the hero, albeit "with an explanation," as the saying goes. Given that Tidyman's vision of Lago was reputedly informed by the murder of Kitty Genovese, a woman killed during a New York mugging, it's odd that women's deceptiveness with regard to sexuality makes them a target of the Stranger's attentions. Early in the film, a woman named Callie tries to provoke a reaction out of the stoic Stranger by bumping into him on purpose, obviously expecting him to apologize and give her the upper hand. Instead, he divines that she really wants to get with him, and when she slaps his cigar out of his mouth (here's one of the times when a cigar isn't just a cigar), he pulls her into a barn and takes her in the haystack. She shoots at him later, though her bullets miraculously miss him, and she ends up sleeping with him again, only to betray him to some of the aggrieved townsfolk.

Sarah, although she's seen in a flashback trying to prevent Marshal Duncan's murder, fares only a little better. To foil the attack on his hotel-room, the Stranger blows up most of the building with dynamite. Following this incident, Sarah remarks to the Stranger that only the room she shares with her husband has been left standing. He gives her a look, and then drags her, protesting greatly, into the room with him. She prepares to defend herself from rape, but the Stranger shifts gears and professes disinterest, which prompts her, like Callie, to attack him-- and this too ends in his assertion of dominance, though again, with the excuse that on some level the woman sought to provoke him to assault her. I tend to think that such incidents, though, were less about demeaning women and more about satirizing the image of the simon-pure western champion.

The Tidyman script provides a somewhat logical reason for the Stranger's animus toward Lago: that he is actually the brother of the slain marshal. Eastwood excises this explanation, though reputedly it survived in foreign versions of the film. Yet even if the Big Explanation had appeared in the American release, other elements continually suggest that the Stranger is more than a mere human being. I've mentioned the incident of the attempted shooting-- where Callie tries to shoot the Stranger in his bath, and he simply ducks his head under the tub-water, which should be no defense against point-blank gunfire even from a clumsy shooter. A similar incident occurs later, when a man standing behind the Stranger begins to draw a knife, and the gunfighter tells the knife-man, "You're going to look pretty silly with that knife sticking out of your ass." Moreover, in a scene that would seem to contradict Tidyman's Big Explanation, the movie lets the audience see into the Stranger's head just once, when he sleeps and dreams of the death of Marshal Duncan, though the Stranger was not present for the event-- unless, in some metaphysical manner, he and Duncan are one and the same. None of the incidents are unquestionable demonstrations of supernatural power. But when a film couples such ambivalences with copious references to religious concepts or rituals, it yields the effect I've termed the '"'ambivalent uncanny,' where one may be able to read the narrative in a naturalistic fashion if one pleases, but where the narrative is oriented toward presenting something wondrous despite that possible reading." Given this propensity, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER functions as a "phantasmal figuration," one of the few in which the source of the phantasm is the protagonist who may or may not be a ghost, rather than some hooded figure pretending to be a ghost.

Eastwood also directed a "kindler, gentler" version of DRIFTER in 1985. PALE RIDER hews more closely to the model of the redeemable community, Where SHANE has a gunfighter take the side of a group of poor homesteaders against a ruthless cattle baron, RIDER has an enigmatic traveling preacher, nicknamed Preacher (Eastwood), who takes the side of impoverished tin-pan miners against the owner of a big mine who wants them off their land.

Preacher is certainly a less demoniacal presence than the Stranger. He's called "Preacher" because he wears what looks like a clerical collar, but he keeps his philosophizing to a minimum, in keeping with the Eastwood Hero's "strong, silent" reputation. He does argue a little with corrupt mine-owner Coy LaHood, telling the rapacious miner that he can't serve both God and Mammon. Like the Stranger, if he is supernatural-- and he only comes into town after being figuratively "summoned" by Megan, a teenaged girl from the mining-camp-- his "supernatural" acts are again ambivalent. A couple of times the Preacher escapes from dicey situations with no clear explanation, and when LaHood brings a gang of crooked enforcers to town to kill the Preacher, the enforcers' leader is astonished when he recognizes his foe from some previous encounter. But if it was an encounter like that of DRIFTER, where Preacher has returned from an inconvenient death, the enforcer gets no chance to expatiate on the matter, as Preacher kills him before he can say more.

 RIDER does not strive to create DRIFTER's horrific mood, nor does it use the earlier film's range of spooky musical effects. Yet though there's no rape-by-the-hero here, the sexual politics may still be a bit problematic for some viewers. After the Preacher shows up at the camp of the put-upon miners, he ends up staying with Megan, the teenaged girl who "summoned" him, and Megan's mother, who just happens to share the name "Sarah" with the character from DRIFTER. Whereas the protagonist of SHANE is idolized in a non-sexual way by a teenaged boy, Megan eventually professes something more than admiration for the considerably older man (Eastwood was 55 at the time of the film's release, and the actress playing Megan was about sixteen). Preacher is suitably restrained at this juvenile protestation of affection, even when Megan accuses him of being in love with her mother. However, Preacher does not end up either seducing or being seduced by either of the women. Perhaps the extraneous romantic elements were only present to keep up the reputation of the Eastwood Persona.

Of the two films, RIDER is the less ambitious and the more derivative. Its evocations of Christian morality are at best half-hearted, since it goes without saying that turning the other cheek would have deprived this decent time-killer of its shoot-em-up climax.

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