High Plains Drifter (1973):

Clint Eastwood's sophomore directorial effort, and the first showing of the genre he's been linked to since the beginning as filtered through his own eyes -- as "The Stranger," he materializes on a horizon distorted by heat waves, less Shane than angel of death. The frontier town of Lago, the parched land set off by a clear blue lake, shakes up as three bloodthirsty gunslingers (led by scabby Eastwood stalwart Geoffrey Lewis) make their way back from jail for some sweet payback -- three murders and one rape later, the nameless brooder starts to look like the town's ticket to salvation. The trio of outlaw brothers evokes Ford, but the Western doyen behind the project, amply acknowledged in the Stranger's barbershop-set dispatching of saloon vermin, is maestro Leone, and indeed, next to Eastwood's usual preference for unadorned aesthetics, the film verges on the baroque. Still, any mythical flamboyance remains tied to Eastwood's rather devastating dissection of the roots of America via a town not worth saving, where the townspeople lurk in the shadows as the sheriff gets whipped to shreds. Where his later frontier loners are pockmarked with an increasingly frail humanity, Eastwood's "hero" here is a pulverizer whose presence, utterly unruffled by the quietly outraged gaze of Verna Bloom's hotelier wife, exposes the rot in the society around him -- respectability gives way to cowardice, treachery, corruption, and an all-pervading hypocrisy during his stay. Westerns-for-Vietnam allegories are a dime a dozen in the 1970s, yet Eastwood gets to the core of an era's shameful passivity to suffering, with Lago's new crimson coat (to say nothing of its rechristening as "Hell") standing in for both intimations of Old Testament retribution and acknowledgement of collective sanguine hands. In the end, as the Stranger says to Billy Curtis' dwarf Mayor, there is nothing to do but live with it. Cinematography by Bruce Surtees. With Marianna Hill, Mitchell Ryan, Ted Hartley, Walter Barnes, and Stefan Gierasch.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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