Having reached stardom in Sergio Leone’s baroque prairie operas, Clint Eastwood brought his laconic, lethal persona back to American soil for a string of intriguing westerns that contemplated his Man With No Name persona with a mix of coasting and inquiry. The three films in the Clint Eastwood Western Icon Collection set are scarcely among the actor’s most important works, yet they are certainly more than commercial chores or vanity projects. Made for Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions by different directors, the three movies share not just the star’s implacable glare, but also the stories of brutal ambiguity and obsession which would later on mark the severe morality of his own work as a filmmaker.
Don Siegel would bring the patented Eastwood maverick to the big city (and thus cement his superstar status) in Dirty Harry, but not before a bit of tweaking in Two Mules for Sister Sara. A curious western-comedy from 1970, it opens with a vintage bit of Eastwood business—trekking through the Mexican desert, he disposes of a gang of bandits with a cigar-lit stick of dynamite—only to make him straight man to Shirley MacLaine’s sly Sister Sara, a nun whose piety teases him as much as her surreptitious drinking and cursing bewilder him. (It quickly becomes clear that the gunslinger hero himself is one of the two mules of the title.) Eastwood’s squint is used for micro double takes, though Siegel knows comedy is not his forte and speeds the plot from its African Queen origins to its Wild Bunch climax. Amiable enough, the film pales next to the director’s extraordinary The Beguiled (Siegel’s most penetrating portrayal of masculinity, also with Eastwood), as well as to the wry elegance probably envisioned by Budd Boetticher, who provided the basis for Albert Maltz’s screenplay.
Even more characteristic than Eastwood’s female trouble in Two Mules for Sister Sara is his character’s status as an ideological freelancer. While the nun is dedicated to helping the Juarista revolutionaries, the gunfighter remains a deadly but neutral presence motivated by his contract—that is, until a closet sense of morality kicks in. The arc is virtually reprised in Joe Kidd, where its eponymous bounty hunter can easily alternate between Mexican rebels (led by John Saxon) and the “Anglo pirates” (led by unscrupulous landowner Robert Duvall) they are revolting against. The struggle between insurgency and capitalism, culminating in a finale of subtle subversion (it involves the encroaching technology of the railroad and a vacant court of justice), is typical of the complexity behind Eastwood’s supposedly reactionary politics. Yet, even clocking in at just 88 minutes, the movie is a bit of a drag: Elmore Leonard’s screenplay has the terseness of a good poker game, but the direction by old-hand John Sturges is less taciturn than simply tired. As the manhunt slogs on, one longs for the earlier film’s appreciation for the absurdity of Eastwood confessing his feelings for MacLaine in the middle of the gory, protracted removal of an Indian arrow from his chest.
On the other hand, the brutal High Plains Drifter is a remarkable film and the set’s keeper. Eastwood’s sophomore directorial effort, it is also the first western he directed; Leone’s influence is obvious in its baroque excesses, but Eastwood’s aim is not to pay homage to the genre but to usher in its apocalypse. The setting is the frontier town of Lago, threatened by three barbarians, but Eastwood’s cowboy hero outdoes them in ferocity; as “The Stranger,” he materializes on the horizon distorted by heat waves, less Shane than angel of death. Where his later gunfighters are pockmarked with an increasingly frail humanity, the “savior” here is a pulverizing creature whose presence exposes the rot of a town that may not be worth saving. The townspeople’s surface respectability gives way to cowardice, treachery, corruption, and venality during his stay. Westerns-for-Vietnam allegories were a dime a dozen in the 1970s, yet Eastwood got to the core of an era’s shameful passivity to suffering, with Lago’s new coat of red paint standing both for intimations of Old Testament retribution and the acknowledgement of collective sanguine hands. (As The Stranger ultimately says to Billy Curtis’s dwarf Mayor, there is nothing to do but “live with it.”) The Eastwood persona may have been molded by other filmmakers, but High Plains Drifter shows the star-auteur as his own most perceptive critic.
The competent visual transfers maintain the anamorphic widescreen format, fascinatingly highlighting the different visual choices by the pictures' distinguished cinematographers, with Gabriel Figueroa's colors in Two Mules for Sister Sara as vivid as Bruce Surtees's in the other two films are somber. The mono sound is meaty.
Three theatrical trailers. Thassit.
Eastwood's other western trilogy won't be challenged, but this set gives an interesting view of a star at a crucial crossroads in his career.