Judge Clark Douglas is a pale writer.
Hell comes home.
"Nothing like a good piece of hickory."
Facts of the Case
The villainous mining boss Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart, Wall Street) is intent on getting all the gold for his large company. LaHood isn't too thrilled about all the local pan miners around who don't work for the company, and he attempts to drive them out of town. Fortunately for the locals, a savior shows up. He's a quiet man who simply goes by the title of "Preacher" (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven). LaHood isn't going to let some skillful gunfighter ruin his business plans, and hires a corrupt U.S. Marshall (John Russell, The Outlaw Josie Wales) to take out this violent man of the cloth. There's a showdown coming, no doubt about it. When the dust settles, who will be left standing?
On the surface, Pale Rider seems to be nothing new under the sun. The plot is as old as the western genre. A mysterious stranger comes into town to rescue people from a bunch of mean old villains. It's not exactly new material, right? I'm fond of quoting the great film critic Roger Ebert, who once said that, "A movie is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it." Pale Rider goes about telling this familiar story in a particularly fascinating way. Much like Eastwood's much-acclaimed Unforgiven, this film attempts to examine the mythology of the west and of the western movie. It also is a study on the unique screen presence of Clint Eastwood, objectively and skillfully conducted by none other than Eastwood himself.
Pale Rider enjoys riding the line between reality and myth. Much of the film toys with the question of whether or not Preacher is a ghost or some sort of violent angel. The title refers to a passage from the book of Revelation, which speaks about a man riding a pale horse. Unsurprisingly, Preacher also rides a pale horse. When he rides into town, a young girl reading her Bible looks at him and ominously concludes her passage, "…and hell followed with him." Religious and mystical elements follow him, too. Maybe Preacher is just an ordinary man. Or, maybe Eastwood feels that The Man with No Name is such an improbable character that he could only be some sort of fallen angel; a savior from heaven with one foot planted firmly in hell.
The strange religious elements are the key to the entire film. Most of these elements are not included as part of the basic plot or even the dialogue. They exist in small visual touches scattered throughout the entire film. Eastwood constantly keeps you wondering if you've seen what you thought you saw. You probably did, or maybe you didn't, it depends on how far along into the film you are and how readily you're willing to swallow spiritual symbolism. The movie doesn't want to provide a definitive answer. Eastwood actually humanizes the character more than you might expect him to. Rather than giving a detached, mysterious personality to Preacher in an attempt to make him more mystical, Eastwood adds touches of welcome warmth. His down-to-earth portrayal of the character goes a long way toward keeping Pale Rider from ever feeling like a vanity project.
Even if you aren't interested in all the spiritual symbolism here, the movie works pretty well as a straightforward western. The plot may be typical genre stuff, but Eastwood is skilled enough as director to elevate the mundane. Though Eastwood is dealing with a character that originated in the films of Sergio Leone, his directing style is quite different. Leone's stylish westerns were nothing short of fascinating, but Eastwood is more interesting in digging below the surface. He treats should-be-tired scenes an opportunity for careful examination. Rather than rushing through a moment, he studies every facet of it before moving on to the next scene. Eastwood's slow-burn direction lends a great deal of excitement to the moments of action (particularly the violent climax). The film takes its time but is never boring.
Aside from Eastwood's predictably stellar acting here, the cast mostly does a solid job. Richard Dysart is a very traditional mustache-twirling villain. He's the sort of fellow who walks around saying things like, "Damn that preacher! I'll figure out some way to deal with him, yes sir." There's also a good performance from a young lady named Sydney Penny (All My Children), who has an exceptional scene in which she declares her undying love for Eastwood. The dialogue exchange between the two of them is perhaps the film's most touching moment. John Russell makes a very intimidating hired gun, lending his rugged screen presence to the film quite successfully. James Bond fans may also enjoy a fun cameo from Richard Kiel, aka "Jaws." Chris Penn also has a decent early role as a creepy thug.
The hi-def transfer is pretty solid. Blacks are quite deep, flesh tones are well-balanced. However, a few scenes are particularly grainy. Sound is solid, with Lennie Niehaus' subtle score coming through quite well. Dialogue and sound effects are clean and crisp. There are no supplements other than a theatrical trailer, which is pretty disappointing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Other Eastwood westerns such as the "Dollars" trilogy and Unforgiven have received lavish special editions. The fact that the superb Pale Rider is still being given a bare-bones release saddens me. Maybe it's for the best, though. I'm not sure that I would want anyone to explain this film to me in detail, informing me of what all of Eastwood's true intentions were. The film's sense of mystery is one of its great qualities, and I wouldn't want that to be ruined by too-informative special features. Even so, I doubt many people feel the same way, and this film deserves better treatment.
Pale Rider is a very fine western, one that genuinely deserves to a place in your collection alongside The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Unforgiven. Though it's a shame that this new Blu-ray release doesn't have anything to offer in the special features department, the movie looks and sounds solid in hi-def. The film itself is an absolute must-see for fans of the western genre.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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