High Plains Drifter (4K UHD Review)
Release Date(s)1973 (November 22, 2022)
Studio(s)The Malpaso Company/Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
On the shores of an ancient salt lake, high in the Sierra Nevada desert, sits the unfriendly mining town of Lagos. It’s a sparse and uncomfortable place, whose people have long hidden a secret and thus face a reckoning in the form of a trio of outlaws (played by Geoffrey Lewis, Dan Vadis, and Anthony James), who are eager to exact their revenge on the town upon being released from prison.
But when a mysterious Stranger (Clint Eastwood) arrives one day on horseback—and promptly kills the gunmen hired by Lagos for protection—the town’s leaders hastily offer him anything he wants to stand in the gunmen’s place. Guarding a secret of his own, the Stranger quickly takes them up on the offer and soon turns the town upside down, enjoying the spoils of his situation while preparing the locals for their inevitable day of judgment.
As experienced cinephiles well know, there are good good movies and bad good movies. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter teeters right on the pinnacle between them. This is a dirty little film, about dirty little people, doing dirty little things. Its murders aside, and there are many, Eastwood’s character rapes not one but two women in the course of this story. It’s clear from the opening shot the actor/director is attempting to emulate the style of the great Sergio Leone—with whom he’d worked on the Dollars Trilogy—but his effort is a rough imitation at best. Most of the dialogue here is clichéd, the townspeople are caricatures, and the supporting cast is a who’s who of 1970s B-list character actors. Frankly, this film is strange, flirting with camp almost to the point of being a spoof of itself. (One suspects that Mel Brooks had this film in mind when making Blazing Saddles.)
And yet… there’s a raw quality to almost everything here that is undeniably compelling. Eastwood’s presence is magnetic throughout. The cinematic influences here abound—not only Leone, but Corbucci, Kurosawa, even Jodorowsky. It’s as if Eastwood is synthesizing elements of all of his favorite films, in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino did early on in his own career. High Plains Drifter is a revenge movie, and a surreal one at that. Not only are there gothic undertones, there’s an argument to be made that there are supernatural undertones as well. And that is fascinating as hell.
High Plains Drifter was shot on 35 mm film by cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Beverly Hills Cop, Dirty Harry), using Arriflex 35 IIC and Panavision PSR R-200 cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses, and it was finished on film at the 2.39:1 “scope” aspect ratio. For its release on Ultra HD, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has commissioned a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, along with digital remastering and grading for High Dynamic Range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are options on this disc). It should be noted that Universal’s 2013 Blu-ray release was actually pretty solid for its day in terms of color and contrast, but it tended to suffer from compression artifacting, uneven grain, and a general softness in its appearance. The new 4K image improves upon this with a notable uptick in resolution and far greater precision in its detailing (though intermediate footage with titles and transitions is the usual half-step down in quality). Photochemical grain is more refined and organic. Colors are a bit richer looking, boldly saturated with greater nuance, and more naturally luminous thanks to the wider gamut. Shadows retain their deeply-black appearance, yet offer significantly more detail. Highlights are bright but never too hot. Do keep in mind: This is a very high-contrast image by design, featuring a number of scenes in which detail is intentionally lost in the shadows. It’s not a dazzler by any stretch, but those familiar with the film should quickly recognize the 4K edition’s many subtle image improvements.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is included in lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format. As far as I can tell, this is the same 5.1 track that was included on the previous Blu-ray editions. It takes the original mono soundstage and expands it across the front, while extending atmospherics and Dee Barton’s haunting and dissonant score lightly into the rear channels. Fidelity is generally pleasing, with clean and discernible dialogue, while the overall mix with music and sound effects is generally well balanced. Also available is an English 2.0 DTS-HD MA track that preserves the original theatrical mono experience and optional English subs.
KLSC’s Ultra HD release is a two-disc set, with the film in 4K on UHD and remastered 1080p HD on Blu-ray (a new disc, not the same version the company released in 2017). Both share the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with Steve Mitchell and Nathanial Thompson
- Audio Commentary with Alex Cox
To this, the Blu-ray adds the following:
- Lady Vengeance: Interview with Actress Marianna Hill (HD – 14:12)
- Hell to Pay: Interview with Actor Mitchell Ryan (HD – 8:14)
- The Barber of Lago: Interview with Actor William O’Connell (HD – 16:12)
- A Man Named Eastwood: Vintage Promo (HD – 7:08)
- Trailers from Hell with Josh Olson (HD & SD – 2:33)
- Trailers from Hell with Edgar Wright (HD & SD – 2:32)
- Poster and Image Gallery (HD – 4:02)
- Radio Spot (HD – :54)
- TV Spot (HD – 1:01)
- Trailer #1 (HD – 2:31)
- Trailer #2 (HD – 1:25)
- A Fistful of Dollars Trailer (HD – 2:27)
- For a Few Dollars More Trailer (HD – 2:30)
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Trailer (HD – 3:23)
- Two Mules for Sister Sara Trailer (HD – 2:36)
- Joe Kidd Trailer (HD – 2:23)
This is a significant upgrade of Universal’s 2013 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, which included only a theatrical trailer. Not only does Kino Lorber carry over all of the fine extras they created for their 2017 Blu-ray release, it adds a new one as well in the form of a second commentary, this one with historians Steve Mitchell and Nathanial Thompson. The commentary with Cox (of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy fame) is a hoot, full of interesting perspective and personality. (BTW, his book on Spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die, is highly recommended.) The new commentary boasts plenty of context and anecdotes as well. And the featurettes are fascinating in their own right, offering recent interviews with Marianna Hill (Callie Travers), Mitchell Ryan (Dave Drake), and William O’Connell (the film’s Barber). All in all, it’s a solid batch of content.
High Plains Drifter might just be the most interesting film that Clint Eastwood has ever made. It’s actually rather off-putting the first time you see it, but each new viewing reveals another layer of the onion—there’s more going on here than is apparent on the surface. Kino Lorber Studio Classics delivers the film in a solid catalog 4K upgrade that isn’t likely to wow your basic A/V enthusiast, but should please more discerning cinephiles.
- Bill Hunt
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