- Crack the whip [idiom]
- To behave in a domineering manner; demand hard work and efficiency from those under one’s control.
Having finished another go around with Clint Eastwood‘s sophomore effort helming a movie, and the first in the genre where he rose to fame, thought to give an appreciation toward its seemingly mundane opening titles sequence. While High Plains Drifter‘s titles are not electrifying, nor even outwardly energetic, they are like their star-director — laconic. Representing his workman-like demeanor and eye-pleasing presentation. Not even all that boisterous, either, like some back in 1973.
Yet, by and large, it provided a veiled precursor of what’s to come in the guise of a dust-streaked drifter, mysteriously waltzing through an out of the way town…on a pale horse1.
The American jazz trombonist, big band drummer, and composer experimented with strings, guitars, harmonica, percussion, early synths, electric bass, and voice for the movie’s theme.
After the obligatory splash of the Universal Pictures logo2 the sequence lights with an eerie hum over the heat haze off the high plains coming into range. Raising the audience’s tension through sight and sound. And if only for that, wouldn’t mean much…but within moments, Dee Barton’s uniquely chilling composition rises from the indistinctness. The complex and original main theme converging with the focal point apparition of the film’s protagonist, referred only to as, “The Stranger.”
High Plains Drifter‘s main titles key off the fearful Barton score, together with the onset visuals of a lone figure on horseback, introducing the tale’s instigator and township. The brief opening setting it off just so — like a drawn, slow fuse being lit. Eastwood collaborator DP Robert Surtee’s cameras follow the lucifer drifter’s meandering descent from scrub to strand. Morphing the ghostly, mirage-like appearance into something more solid…portentous, in fact…on the landscape.
The blood-red titles appearing against the photogenic shores of Mono Lake3 graphically foretell what’s coming for the town of Lago, in one of the very few supernatural westerns ever shot.
Little doubt in returning to the venerable “oater” in his second self-directed film from the cinematic Seventies, Eastwood used his “Man With No Name” legacy to an interesting, yet contrastive effect here4. The Stranger’s ride in, besides providing a backdrop to list the film’s credits against, serves to introduce the other principals of the story with a compulsive audio-visual texture. Every step of the pale horse registers5 in this wordless start, drawing something terrible ever closer.
This opening titles sequence, while seemingly uneventful, not merely to etch acknowledgements on. They’re meant to cascade the audience into the same apprehensive mood the camera catches in the desolate faces shown. Each caught spellbound at the sight of seemingly taciturn outsider entering their far-flung stead. Persuasively setting the tenor of the film. All culminating in the crucial sound effect and plotpoint of the entire storyline: the small sonic boom that is the “crack of a whip.”
The effect to frame the titles, visually and audibly, for this singularly noirish western in “dead on” fashion.
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- Eastwood’s second straight directorial effort was controversial in its day but still a commercial hit for the studio; and like his first, came in early and under-budget. ↩
- “Additional scenes were filmed at Reno, Nevada’s Winnemucca Lake and California’s Inyo National Forest.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Headstones in the graveyard “The Stranger” passes by on his way into town bore the names of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Brian G. Hutton; the directors of many of his early movies. ↩
- Superb work by sound designer James R. Alexander, and uncredited William Griffith, Edwin J. Somers Jr., and Jerry Whittington. ↩