Classic Review: High Plains Drifter

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A daring, somber film that employs Hitchcock-style storytelling and continues Clint Eastwood’s darker revision of the West.

Review:  For those of you who have seen the classic 1952 western ‘High Noon’, you will recall that its hero, a sheriff played by Gary Cooper, defeats four bandits in a small town but subsequently leaves it, presumably forever.  The reason for his departure was that the townspeople themselves did not support the sheriff in his efforts.  Though he pleaded with them for help to fight these men, they backed out of it, and left him to defend the town alone.  And so the Sheriff leaves in anger and disappointment at those who were not willing to help themselves.

The reason I mention this is because this is an early example of the de-glorification of the West.  The spirit of the pioneers, traditionally portrayed as courageous and humble, is instead shown as cowardly and, by extension, selfish.  By failing to stand up against the antagonists of the film, the town folk in ‘High Noon’ become quasi-antagonistic themselves.  It’s a more complex, albeit sadder spirit for westerns, and it must have been a surprise to people in 1952.  ‘High Plains Drifter’ in 1973, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, takes this vision one step further.

The opening of the film appears normal enough.  After the credits, accompanied by some notably eerie music, a stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the dusty western town of Lago and is immediately confronted by three loud-mouthed gunmen who threaten to kill him.  Of course this is a Clint Eastwood movie, and a quick shoot-out silences them forever.  The town then petitions the stranger to stay and defend them against three more outlaws who were arrested in the town some time earlier but are soon to be released from prison.  After much convincing, he agrees.

Much like ‘High Noon’, the people of Lago are spineless.  Even with guns in their hands, loaded and pointed at the outlaws as they ride into town, not one of them has the conviction to shoot.  Unlike the people of ‘High Noon’, however, the people of Lago are not just cowardly.  They also harbor a terrible secret, a gruesome murder for which the whole town, driven by greed, is guilty.

It is the total destruction of the Classic Western Spirit that Eastwood explores in this movie.  What was suggested two decades earlier as cowardliness is now realized in 1973 as spineless avarice.  Absent here are the hardworking, courageous, and noble people whom we’ve come to expect from the West.  Gone is the glorification of Manifest Destiny.  Gone is the belief that the settlers brought morality and true civilization to the wilderness.  Clint Eastwood dares to show the dark side of the pioneers: settlers too afraid to do what is right and selfish enough to break any law of God or Man.  Here is a world where the people themselves are their own worst enemies.

Clint Eastwood took his already-then fabled Man With No Name character to a new, dark depth in this film.  In addition to his gruff attitude and fast draw, there’s something strangely mysterious about him.  He has a ghost-like quality; something quasi-supernatural.  The climactic showdown at the end, in which only his silhouette is seen, only adds to this mystery.  He’s not simply a stranger anymore; He’s something more.  A force of nature itself; a roaring tempest guided only by the winds, exacting vengeance where he sees fit, be it on outlaws or the town folk.  Never before and never since have Eastwood’s nameless drifters held such power and wonder simultaneously.

Simply put this is an excellently executed film.  It feels truly original and, though somber, is wonderfully engrossing. The film’s inherent darkness and great mystery, as well as a key twist at the end, are evocative of Hitchcock’s work.  If Alfred Hitchcock had ever been in an ominous sort of mood, he might have made a film like ‘High Plains Drifter’.

In short, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is another great Western from a man who was famous for reinventing them.  At times is suffers from being a bit too intense, but overall it’s fine craftsmanship shines through to the end.  This is one of the grittiest, most somber Westerns ever made, but if you can handle it, it’s worth a watch.

Patrick’s Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Well, apparently I’ve been called out on the Silver Mirror for a top ten directors.  Here we go.  My Top Ten Directors (again in no particular order):

Sergio Leone

I feel a little guilty about stealing a little of James’ top ten thunder here, but it’s a proven fact that Sergio Leone is made of pure awesome.  His movies are violent, comical, and (surprisingly) touching.  He doesn’t allow himself to get boxed in by labels or genres.  Even if you’re not a fan of spaghetti westerns or gangster films, you can’t help but watch his movies and smile just a little.

Hayao Miyazaki

This man is the Steven Spielberg of animated films.  Movies like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ show powerful story telling and an incredibly beautiful sense of art, all the while delivering a powerful and yet not anvilicious message.  He shows that animation isn’t just for kids, it’s for adults too.

Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner knows how to make a good movie.  Well, as a matter of fact, he knows how to make a lot of different kinds of good movies.  He’s done everything from horror movies like ‘Misery’, to dramas like a ‘Few Good Men’, to fantasies like ‘The Princess Bride’, to family movies like ‘Stand by Me’, to comedies like ‘This is Spinal Tap’.  Few directors have such a resume.

Akira Kurosawa

The excellence of Akira Kurosawa cannot be understated.  He is the mastermind behind Japanese epics full of action, slow motion, quick cuts, and badass samurais.  He’s not too well known in the U.S. of A., but he ought to be, considering that such famous films as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ wouldn’t have existed without his work.

Ridley Scott

What can I say?  This is the man who made ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Gladiator’.  He’s a master of despotic story telling that still shows a surprising amount of action.  Let’s hope his next film, ‘Robin Hood’, lives up to his other classic works.

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is a master of horror and suspense.  He has scared audiences to death with films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’.  He’s also responsible for the arguably coolest character in the history of film, ‘Escape from New York’s’ Snake Plisken (“Call me Snake”). Badass!

John McTiernan

I think action directors are very underrated.  John McTiernan helped resurrect the then-ridiculous genre in the late 80’s and early 90’s with such classics as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Predator’, and ‘The Hunt For Red October’.  He’s made his fair share of bad films, but when it comes to action films, you can count on him to deliver.

Woody Allen

Woody Allen is great about telling very personal stories that also manage to make you laugh your ass off.  His insights are unique and yet relatable at the same time.  His movies about everyday people caught up in the struggle of day-to-day life are forever entertaining.

Clint Eastwood

Not only is he a badass actor, but a master director as well.  He shows seemingly hard-hearted people slowly learn to open up to others, and it’s a powerful effect.  Films like ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Gran Torino’ mix subtly and raw power.  As the Smashing Pumpkins might put it, he is a bullet with butterfly wings.

Don Bluth

Don Bluth dominated my childhood. Films like ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Secret of NIMH’ I still love to this day.  There’s a certain mysticism he employs in his films that is, well, empowering.  The characters in his movies are always just a little more real than in other animated stories, and it makes them that more relatable and really less “kiddy”.  That’s the great staple of his animated films.  They aren’t just for kids, they really are for all ages.

Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

Classic Review: A Fistful of Dollars

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

Review:  The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better.  Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.

While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre.  Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns.  Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.

Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting).  It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.

Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove.  In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho.  Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.

As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years.  Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score.  Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.

Then there is the camera work.  Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts.  It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense.  Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots.  He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.

In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be.  Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality.  I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people.  This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole.  Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film.  With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns.  Then the sequels came …