Annihilation before purification for the High Noon hamlet. "The price of progress" is the cloak for corruption and cowardice, the mining town by the lake is sun-blasted yet sick with shadows, it might be Brecht-Weill's Mahagonny out West. The stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides along for a bottle of whiskey and a hot bath, three corpses and a rape later and the citizens are begging him to be their new enforcer, "unlimited credit" and all. Sagebrush rot has its roots: The recurring nightmare-memory is a marshal lashed to death on Main Street before a craven audience, the railroaded culprits are just out of jail and on their way back for a bit of revenge. "Forgive and forget, that's our motto!" As much Sergio Leone aria as Kaneto Shindo specter, Eastwood's first Western as a director is a remarkable genre apocalypse. Desert spirit, avenging sibling or knighted beast, his nameless gunslinger helps himself to the town's secrets and fears—a militia trained and abandoned, the hotel taken over and blown up, such are the Dantean degrees, not even Verna Bloom's scolding gaze escapes the communal sins. "I knew you were cruel, but I didn't know how far you could go." "You still don't." Wicked prosperity calls for a violating conscience, The Chase and Teorema figure in the stark expressionism subsequently winnowed (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). A judgment for the living and the dead, Poe for the put-upon dwarf (Billy Curtis) given the sheriff's star and the mayor's top hat, a tale of executions and resurrections. The central image, which reveals the Jodorowsky side of Eastwood, is this nascent America painted crimson and rechristened Hell, a low-angled, hand-held circular pan roughly surveys the calm before the inferno. The cowboy at the close rides off into a distorted wave, just the horizon for a nation forcibly coming to terms with its collective bloodied hands. "Then you live with it." Cinematography by Bruce Surtees. With Marianna Hill, Mitchell Ryan, Jack Ging, Stefan Gierasch, Walter Barnes, Geoffrey Lewis, Ted Hartley, Scott Walker, Anthony James, and Buddy Van Horn.
--- Fernando F. Croce