Appellate Judge Dan Mancini wishes he had a steely gaze that turned his enemies' blood cold, but steely gazes are hard to pull off when you wear prescription glasses.
"Somebody left the door open, and the wrong dogs came home."—The Stranger, High Plains Drifter
Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) is an icon of the movie Western, there's no doubt about it. Unfortunately, only one of the films in this triple-feature set makes a strong case for his status. The other two are shallow but decent entertainments.
Facts of the Case
The three movies in Clint Eastwood: Western Icon Collection are housed on only two single-sided discs. They're presented in reverse production order, but from best to worst. Here's the rundown:
Joe Kidd (1972)
Its three movies may vary in quality, but there's coherence to Clint Eastwood: The Western Icon Collection. Each of the pictures comes from Eastwood's Hollywood-produced Western work of the early '70s, not long after he'd transitioned from his early-career television work to big-screen stardom as the reticent anti-hero of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here we find Eastwood playing minor variations on the Man With No Name character he brought to life for Leone.
Eastwood's second feature as a director, High Plains Drifter is by far the finest flick in this set. Like Leone, Eastwood borrows liberally from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, crafting a spare, unflinching, and relentlessly cynical Western that comes across as a loose remake of Yojimbo, incorporating elements of Seven Samurai. In bringing Leone's vision of a dirty, seedy, amoral American West from Italy to the home shores of Hollywood, Eastwood appears intent on aggravating his audience by setting up his own Stranger character as the story's hero, but revealing him as a grade-A swine in the movie's opening minutes. In the first reel alone, the Stranger rides into town, shoots three guys, and rapes a woman. Blowing away the trio of goons is the sort of genre convention that normally fires audience blood lust. But followed as it is by the woman's rape and the Stranger's wry enjoyment of her humiliation, it leaves us struggling to come to grips with Eastwood's pushing beyond Leone's anti-hero archetype into pure villainy. No one in High Plains Drifter is even marginally likable.
As in Kurosawa's Yojimbo, the plot makes hay with a gaggle of greedy louts who get their comeuppance when they hire an unscrupulous rogue to protect them from men they've wrong. In Eastwood's variation of the theme, the town's leading men promise the Stranger anything he wants in exchange for his services. Pitch black comedy ensues as the Stranger makes all manner of outrageous demands, from a new saddle and cowboy boots to rounds of beer and whiskey for everyone in town. His most bizarre demands have a delicious payoff in a finale best not mentioned here. The bleak tone is sometimes shocking even for those familiar with Leone's caustic studies of man's entertaining inhumanity to man, but perfectly befits the anti-establishment New Hollywood era during which High Plains Drifter was made.
A year before making High Plains Drifter, Eastwood teamed with director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) for Joe Kidd. It's a straight-forward affair, with a simple plot and clearly drawn heroes and villains. There's a moment at the beginning of the third act in which it looks like Sturges may introduce some moral ambiguity, but it doesn't pan out. Matters are quickly ironed out so that Eastwood and the rest of the cast can plow on to a convention genre finale. That Sturges fails to say something about the corrupting influence of power and the cult of celebrity when he's offered an easy chance to do so is disappointing. His direction is otherwise rock solid, serving up a picture that is brisk and visually expressive.
Despite its lack of depth, Joe Kidd is a rousing entertainment, boasting a cast that elevates its by-the-numbers content. Eastwood plays a slightly gussied-up and more talkative version of his patented squinty badass type. John Saxon practically drips machismo as the rebel leader Chama. He's smooth and square-jawed, yet believably charismatic behind his poncho, mustache, and bogus Mexican accent. And a Western can't go wrong with Robert Duvall saddling up as the villain. Made the same year as The Godfather, Joe Kidd features a youngish, drawling Duvall who's a far cry from the smartass cuss Augustus McCray that he played so magnificently in Lonesome Dove. Still, Duvall brings depth and texture to Frank Harlan without diminishing the character's almost reptilian despicability. Joe Kidd isn't a great or important Western, but it's hard to dismiss a movie that pits Eastwood and Duvall against each other, then throws in John Saxon for good measure.
1970's Two Mules for Sister Sara rightly bills Shirley MacLaine above Eastwood in the credits. Not only is she the title character, but the movie's perspective is decidedly female (though hardened and tough). Despite boasting a couple tense action sequences, most of what goes on is dusty comedy that (sometimes successfully) mines laughs by pitting Eastwood's cool persona against MacLain's stubborn feminine wiles. For the most part, Two Mules is a fluffy little confection that entertains with long stretches of time during which Eastwood and MacLaine share the screen with each other and no other actors. The duo has a surprising amount of screen chemistry, mixing equal parts hesitation, fondness, lust, and plain silliness.
Two Mules for Sister Sara is one of the many collaboration between Eastwood and director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), but it's a middling effort. The plot is mildly interesting and, as I said before, Eastwood and MacLaine are good together. Unfortunately, Siegel doesn't realize the potential of the story and performances with a satisfying conclusion. Third act revelations about Sister Sara are absurd and a little disappointing (though not surprising). But the biggest drag is that the climactic gunfight is poorly directed. It's difficult to imagine what Siegel was thinking (unless it was, "How many days till payday?"). While two small armies of nameless extras clash, Eastwood slinks around, occasionally tossing a stick of dynamite at some unsuspecting schlub. The battle is void of energy or dramatic tension. It's as if Siegel wanted to get it all out of the way so he could finish off with one final joke involving a naked MacLaine, fully clothed Eastwood, and a bath tub filled with water and bubbles. Truth be told, Two Mules for Sister Sara is a bad movie made extremely watchable by the charisma of its two leads.
Crammed as they are on two DVDs, none of the three films in this collection look spectacular; none look horrible, either. All three suffer to one degree or another from compression artifacts (particularly noticeable in dense tangles of sage brush). High Plains Drifter and Joe Kidd were released in stand-alone editions back in 1998. Two Mules for Sister Sara first appeared on DVD in 2003. I haven't seen any of those discs, but if I had to guess, I'd say this is a repackaging of the earlier transfers. High Plains Drifter is the worst looking of the bunch, sporting an image that is slightly soft and that displays a fair amount of dirt. Kidd Joe is the best, offering High Plain Drifter's accurate colors, but with fewer flaws and increased clarity. It's still far from reference quality, and doesn't quite meet the current standard for run-of-the-mill. Two Mules for Sister Sara is bright, detailed, and almost entirely free of blemishes. It would look better than Kid Joe except that it suffers throughout from excessive edge enhancement that renders thick halos around people and objects set against the bright blue sky. All three movies are presented in their original scope aspect ratios of 2.35:1, and the transfers are enhanced for widescreen displays. None of the transfers is an eye-sore, but each could be better.
Audio for each movie is an unremarkable two-channel mix of the original mono tracks. A French dub is also available for each picture.
The only extras are theatrical trailers for each movie. Otherwise, there aren't even chapter menus.
High Plains Drifter is a fine Western that deserves a much better presentation than what it receives in this set. Heck, even the two lesser movies deserve better. That said, all of the movies are perfectly watchable both in terms of their content and their presentations. With a list price under $20, Clint Eastwood: Western Icon Collection is a good way for budget-minded fans of the genre or Eastwood to pick up three entertaining romps.
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