One of the strangest Westerns I have ever seen, and I've watched it several times, is High Plains Drifter, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The story was dark, the cinematography was expansive and stark, the protagonist a true anti-hero, with almost supernatural powers. The townspeople represented a closed society, paranoid, secretive, and full of duplicity and cowardice.
The anti-hero stranger, played by Clint Eastwood, establishes himself as a supreme danger by killing 3 men from his barber chair and then, after being insulted by a beautiful woman in the street, dragging her into the stable and raping her. The film includes flashbacks, images of a gunslinger at the end of the street and then vanished into thin, desert air.
High Plains Drifter is an excellent example of a Western Noir film. While critical reviews were mixed, the film was a box office success. Released in 1973, the film grossed over 7 million dollars, more money than any other Western in the 1970's. It did not receive any awards, yet is considered by many fans as one of the best Clint Eastwood Westerns ever made. According to rotten tomatoes, the film still scores a 96% rating with all critics and an 83% with audiences.
Clint Eastwood wasn't finished making Western Noir films. His most celebrated achievement was the Academy Award Winning Best Picture Unforgiven, released in 1992, in which he again directed and starred in, along with Gene Hackman, whose brutal, soulless portrayal of Little Bill Daggett won him an Oscar for best Supporting Actor. In addition to winning Best Picture, Clint Eastwood received the Oscar for Best Director.
Unforgiven is a dark, violent tale that exposes the underside of the wild west. Where most Westerns historically portrayed Native Americans as bad guy Indians and the white people as the good guys taming the wild frontier, Clint Eastwood tossed those stereotypes aside. Eastwood chose instead to explore the darker side of violence within the settlers of the frontier- with often deadly consequences for good and bad alike. In the harsh environment of the desert, people are reduced to their baser instincts.
Eastwood directed this film with bold, dark strokes, contrasting the panoramic images of a desolate, empty landscape with the close shots of wicked laughs, harsh dialogue, and unnaturally violent acts. His protagonist is the classic anti-hero, defending the honor of a disfigured prostitute for a thousand dollar fee, and then seeking revenge for the murder and abuse of the corpse of his long-time friend, Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman).
While older and more compassionate, Eastwood's character is only marginally more agreeable than those he would kill for money and friendship. With the possible exception of Daggett, whose cruelty seems to have no limit, Eastwood's William "Will" Munny admits committing horrible acts in his past, at one point telling Daggett, "That's right, I've killed women and children, I've killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another, and I'm here to kill you Little Bill, for what you did to Ned".
While many lovers of Noir film focus on thrillers and detective movies like Inception and the The Maltese Falcon, the Western is a perfect genre for Noir films to thrive. From the stark settings and harsh environment, to the almost mythical images of gunfighters and Western frontier towns, the canvas is ready for painting. Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood has created dark and compelling tales that have clearly established the Western as yet another genre perfect for Noir film expression.
Next Post: Today's Noir Westerns: Cowards, Curs, and the Dead Man's Hand