Payback’s A Whip



The dust on main street gets kicked up by the fresh winds of The Wild Bunch and all its lusty, face-forward violence. Eastwood’s eternal Man With No Name – here, technically “The Stranger” – rides out of a roiling sea of heat, down into the town of Lago, as in lake, as in nature’s baptismal, and spends an afternoon test driving all the things a western can do in the early ’70s: real blood, real profanity, wanton rape, before passing out in time to catch a dream vision of the town before his arrival. While it’s never finally confirmed, we get a telling sense that this visitor isn’t just from a high plain, but a higher plane, and there may be, by the end, some supernatural retribution delivered by his hand.

The set-up’s a little busy: three tough guys up front pester the Stranger and get shot down in the first ten minutes. They were hired by the town to protect them from three other bad guys, who were hired previously by the town to kill a federal marshal who they thought might squeal to the government about their lucrative gold mine. When the three do their job and whip the marshal to death, the town betrays them, sending them off to jail. Now the three are out and headed back to town to pay ’em all back – or at the very least to finally get paid – and our central out-of-towner is coaxed into taking on the protector role. The film strings all this together with long-moldering genre tropes all down its sleeve, but soon enough subverts them under a billow of gothic dread from a flip, screw-the-man cheroot.

The Stranger’s m.o. is to pay back the town’s black guilt with a dose of good old American cartoon irony – to have the locals literally paint the town red as a sarcastic welcome back to the three outlaws and, more to the point, as an easy target for the three against the blue, purifying waters. It all plays like the darkest, most sideways comedy, but for the ever-mounting sense of dark sin that drives the plot toward a punishing conflagration of fire and whip. But it ends as convoluted as it starts: by the climax, we’re supposed to forget that the three returning outlaws the Stranger whips to death are also victims of the town’s bloody greed.

In any case, the tropes might be 1870s but we’re in pure 1970s antihero territory, with no real grip on anyone to call our own. We think we’re rooting for Eastwood’s nameless drifter, much in the same way we do Mifune’s character in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, or even Eastwood’s other blank heroes in the Leone movies, but all of them had some mention of charm about them, albeit distant and hard-bitten. But here the attraction is as thin as our simple expectation that there ought to be a hero in a movie. Everything the morally bankrupt town does to win our disdain, he does something as self-damning and we’re left adrift. Eventually, he gathers up enough information about the town’s deeds to mount what can be construed as a righteous act of vengeance, but our allegiance has been left out to dry long enough that we’re sidelined, simply left to watch as forces of evil of various stripes cancel each other out.

The movie comes two years after Dirty Harry, a film and character that stoked fascistic desires filtered through a surrogate cop bent on some implacable brand of personal retribution of criminals that transcended any mandates from his superiors – Harry Callahan is a lone gunman under color of law, but operating as his own man, eyes on the streets, finger on the trigger, justice nothing but an academic buzzword. He’s the 19th century cowboy who got dropped a hundred years into the future. But now, here, he’s back home again, on the plains, porting not much more about the blasted wilderness than his gun, his sun-baked solitude, and his unslakeable thirst for independence. When he comes face to face with the hundred-proof iteration of the kind of humanity he deserted in the first place, it’s only his pronounced sense of irony that prompts a reply. All else noble, that of the previous generation of westerns, is washed away in a two-bit bath. In the annals of tales of redemptive violence, rarely have so few been redeemed.

Kino Lorber provides a typically handsome disc, with new interviews with character actors Marianna Hill, Mitchell Ryan, and William O’Connell; a 1973 behind the scenes promo/Eastwood bio that highlights the grace inherent in Eastwood’s directing style even in this, only his second directed feature; a couple of quick, fun Trailers From Hell bits; and a casually robust commentary track by western expert Alex Cox, who outlines the history of the players and the deft melding of Eastwood’s numerous influences. But, borrowing a phrase from the promo, the main attraction is the film, its impact rooted in, among other things, “a touch of macabre morality.”

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