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High Plains Drifter (1973);
Winchester '73 (1950)

High Plains Drifter (1973)
June 17, 2012 - 7:00 pm

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

A mysterious stranger wreaks havoc on a small Western town that allowed its sheriff to be whipped to death by a gang of thugs. Similar to the townspeople in High Noon, the inhabitants of the small community at the edge of a large lake on the plains, aptly named Lago ("lake" in Italian), could populate several rings of Dante’s "Inferno". The Stranger actually has the town painted red and renames it Hell.

Clint Eastwood went through an extensive apprenticeship at Universal in the 1950s, before becoming a star in Rawhide (1959-1965), filmed on Universal’s back lot and one of many popular Western series on television in the early 1960s. When the series ended, Eastwood unexpectedly became a world superstar in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, beginning with A Fistful of Dollars (1964). After starring in several more American westerns, Eastwood chose High Plains Drifter for his second directorial outing and it is now considered one of his masterpieces. A stylized, revisionist Western in the manner of Leone, it allows Eastwood the opportunity to pay homage to his Italian mentor, by marking one of the gravestones in the cemetery “Sergio Leone” (an honor also bestowed on Eastwood’s American mentor, Don Siegel). The film’s opening five minute sequence without any dialogue is also a nod to Leone, whose characters are men of few words (unfortunately, the film’s misogyny, exemplified in a rape scene, also seems to be a hold-over from the Spaghetti Westerns).

As with Eastwood’s later quasi-religious Western, Pale Rider (1985), High Plains Drifter leaves it unclear whether The Stranger is a flesh-and-blood human being or a ghost. His arrival and departure is filmed with a telephoto lens through hazy waves of heat, a physical materialization out of nothingness and disappearance back into the ether, like an angel of death. Underscoring this ambiguity, Buddy Van Horn, Eastwood’s long time stunt-double, plays the murdered sheriff.

—Jan-Christopher Horak

Universal Pictures. Producer: Robert Daley. Screenwriter: Ernest Tidyman, Dean Riesner. Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees. Editor: Ferris Webster. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Mariana Hill, Mitchell Ryan, Jack Ging. 

35mm, color, 105 min.

Winchester '73 (1950)

Directed by Anthony Mann

Cowboy Lin McAdam wins a prized Winchester rifle in a contest, only to have it stolen by a rival. Unbeknownst to McAdam (James Stewart), the rival is actually his long lost brother who had murdered their father, thus setting off an epic, Cain-and-Abel struggle between good and evil. As the gun changes hands several times, the cowboy doggedly, one might say obsessively to the point of neurosis, pursues the killer and the coveted rifle. Written by classic Western novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase, Winchester ’73 helped kick off a tidal wave of complex, adult Westerns in the 1950s that eschewed the genre’s previously black and white morality. Meanwhile, Anthony Mann’s incredibly economic and dark direction and William Daniel’s breathtakingly beautiful cinematography give Winchester ’73 a sweeping scope that have earned the film a reputation as a true masterpiece.

With this film, Stewart became Universal’s most popular Western star, changing his previous image as a city slicker and light comedian to that of a hardboiled, but also morally ambiguous Westerner who can stand up to Dan Duryea’s nearly psychotic gang leader. Ironically, Stewart almost didn’t take the role, because the producers could not match his $250,000 fee, until MCA agent Lew Wasserman brokered a percentage deal, the first of its kind in the sound film era, which earned the actor more than $600,000. Percentage deals would soon become an industry norm, upending the relationship between studios, agents and talent and contributing to the demise of long-term contracts and the studio system.

The film revitalized Stewart’s career after a number of post war flops and a growing reputation as an acting lightweight. It was Stewart who suggested Mann to direct after Fritz Lang pulled out of the project. The pair would go on to produce several more masterpieces together, including Bend of the River (1957), The Naked Spur (1953), and The Man From Laramie (1955). Also, look for Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis in tiny roles, before both became stars at Universal.

—Jan-Christopher Horak

Universal-International Pictures. Producer: Aaron Rosenberg. Screenwriter: Robert L. Richards, Borden Chase. Cinematographer: William Daniels. Editor: Edward Curtiss. Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Rock Hudson.

35mm, b/w, 92 min.

Watch the trailer below.