In High Noon, Gary Cooper's taciturn lawman must face a posse of murderers when the clock strikes twelve. The situation is rife with dramatic possibilities -- and, it turns out, with political allegories and commentaries. Has it stood the test of time? Why is this "ordinary" Western a big deal? Do not forsake me, oh my darling, and we'll investigate.
The praise: The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won four: best actor (Gary Cooper), editing, musical score, and original song. (It was the first time the song award had gone to a film that wasn't a musical.) The other nods were for best picture, director, and screenplay; if it's any consolation, the movie that won best picture was The Greatest Show on Earth, generally regarded as one of the worst "best pictures" in Oscar history. The film also won four Golden Globes (including a best supporting actress trophy for Katy Jurado, the first Mexican performer to win a Globe). It ranked #33 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the best American movies ever made, and #27 on the 2007 revised list.
The context: Political activists tend to believe that what they're doing is more right and noble than what their opponents are doing. This is true even when two groups are acting in direct opposition to one another. In the early 1950s, there were Americans who believed that communism must be stopped at all costs, and that anyone who was sympathetic to the ideals of communism must be identified and closely watched. This "red scare" led to the House Un-American Activities Committee calling Hollywood actors, writers, and directors to testify about their knowledge of communist leanings among their peers. To name names was, in HUAC's view, the right thing to do. At the same time, there were people who believed that HUAC's tactics were unduly heavy-handed, and that the right thing to do was to stand up against such bullying and refuse to name names.
The film On the Waterfront (1954) was partially intended as director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg's justification for cooperating with HUAC. The film's hero, played by Marlon Brando, wrestles with the question of whether to tell the police the names of the criminals operating on the docks, eventually determining that it would be immoral not to do so.
High Noon had been made, at least in part, with the opposite view in mind. The screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was in the process of writing High Noon in 1951, when he was called to testify before HUAC. Foreman had indeed been a member of the Communist Party, but had grown disillusioned and quit, and now he refused to answer any questions from the committee. He was blacklisted for this decision and eventually moved to England, unable to work in Hollywood anymore. In the meantime, the turmoil frustrated Foreman, and he worked those frustrations into his High Noon screenplay. (Though High Noon is officially an adaptation of a short story called "The Tin Star," Foreman said he'd come up with the plot himself, noticed that "The Tin Star" had some coincidental similarities, and bought the rights to the short story to avoid legal problems.)
Foreman's controversial decision not to name names angered his producer and business partner, Stanley Kramer, who had named names. Kramer tried to have Foreman removed from the movie altogether, but its star, Gary Cooper -- who was conservative and anti-communist but didn't agree with HUAC's tactics -- stood beside Foreman. The writer remained involved, though he lost his credit as co-producer. After the film was a success, Kramer tended to exaggerate how much he, Kramer, had been involved in its production -- much to the consternation of its actual director, Fred Zinnemann.
It's easy to watch High Noon and see Foreman's point of view. A decent, upright sheriff played by Gary Cooper could flee when he learns a man he sent to prison is coming with a posse to get revenge on him. But instead he chooses to stay and fight, to stand up for truth and justice, even though the townspeople are too chicken to back him up. The parallels are simple: Cooper is Foreman, the bad guys are HUAC, the townspeople are Hollywood types like Kramer and Kazan.
But that interpretation is only obvious if you know the film's background, and even then it's not inescapable. None of the contemporary reviews I can find describe the film as having any political component at all. (Here is the New York Times review, which does allude to the question of whom to credit for the film's excellence; here is Variety's review.) In the book Showdown at High Noon: Witch-Hunts, Critics, and the End of the Western, Jeremy Byman writes:
The film's abstractness permitted many interpretations. In the Midwest, for instance, Cooper was seen as a symbol of Eisenhower working against the communist threat, a view Eisenhower himself presumably adopted with his numerous White House screenings of the film.
Foreman's enemies could as easily identify their hero, Senator Joseph McCarthy, with [Cooper's character] Will Kane: "Kane's unpopularity for choosing to fight rather than abide with Hadleyville's do-nothing policy is akin to McCarthy's self-image of a crusader risking 'smear and abuse' from those upset by his forthright approach." ... Still others saw it as an antipacifist tract, and later, as an inspiration for Clint Eastwood's supposedly anti-civil-libertarian Dirty Harry, which also ends with a badge being thrown away.
There was even a foreign policy interpretation: Cooper's marshal (like America itself) had wanted peace after clearing up the town five years before (that is, World War II), and reluctantly must buckle on his gunbelt again in the face of new aggression (the Korean War); eventually his pacifist wife (American isolationists) must see where her true duty lies and support him. (p. 94)
Everyone had a reason to like or dislike High Noon's message. John Wayne later called it "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life," and said he was proud to have played a part in getting Carl Foreman blacklisted. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's Pravda -- presumably John Wayne's political polar opposite -- attacked the film as "a glorification of the individual." As Bart Simpson said, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.
The movie: The year is, oh, 1870-something. Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the beloved marshal of this small frontier town, is getting married to the lovely Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and resigning from his post. The new sheriff will arrive tomorrow. But wait! Bad old Frank Miller, a murderer sent up the river by Kane some years ago, has been released from prison and is headed here to seek revenge. Three of his buddies are already in town, waiting for the noon train. Everyone tells Kane to just get outta here already; Miller has no beef with anyone else; if he's gone when Miller arrives there probably won't be any trouble. (Probably.) Kane doesn't want to run. He wants to settle this, and he'd like for some of his friends to help him.
What it influenced: Is this the first movie to have a heroic main character who's supposed to be quitting but has to do One Last Job on his final day of work? Probably not. Surely one of the earliest examples of that familiar device, though. And note that he doesn't actually have to do this job. He does it because he feels morally obligated.
High Noon is often described as taking place in "real time," but that isn't strictly true. The movie is 85 minutes long, and the events contained in it occupy 100 minutes, from 10:35 a.m. to about 12:15 p.m. Still, it's true that the action is continuous. There are no edits suggesting that time has passed since the previous scene. If you weren't watching the clocks shown on screen and comparing them to the counter on your DVD player, you'd assume the 85-minute movie covered exactly 85 minutes in the lives of the characters.
What's important is that High Noon has the feel of real time. It introduces a deadline, then constantly reminds us of how much time remains before the deadline arrives. The "ticking clock" scenario is popular in fiction, especially when used by criminals: You have 24 hours to deliver the ransom money; a bomb will go off in 90 minutes; etc. Very few movies before High Noon had been told in real time -- Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948)was one -- and indeed, according to Webster's dictionary, the term "real time" wasn't even coined until 1953.
The real-time TV show 24 bore a remarkable resemblance to High Noon. Where High Noon would keep showing us clocks to remind us of the looming deadline, 24 would simply put the current time on the screen. 24's signature ticking clock sound effect is reminiscent of a more creative device in High Noon, where a pendulum is shown swinging back and forth and the musical score exactly matches it.
I was most fascinated to notice that at High Noon's climactic moment -- the arrival of the train -- the film cuts to all the different characters, spread throughout the town, each responding in a different way, as the music becomes more intense. That's exactly what happened near the end of each episode of 24, except that 24 would use split-screen to show them all at once. (Here's the scene from High Noon.)
High Noon was part of a new breed of Western, the kind that didn't have a lot of gunfighting, and where there weren't any marauding Indians. David A. Cook writes in A History of Narrative Film:
The heroic, idealized, epic Western of John Ford and his imitators remained popular in the 1950s but was gradually replaced by what was called the 'adult Western.' This genre, whose prototypes were The Gunfighter (1950) and High Noon (1952) concentrated on the psychological or moral conflicts of the individual protagonist in relation to his society, rather than creating the poetic archetypes of order [that were] characteristic of Ford. (p. 411.)
What to look for: One thing you should try not to look at is the fact that Gary Cooper is 50 years old and Grace Kelly, playing his wife, is 22. Hard not to notice, though. Cooper was in poor health anyway, and director Fred Zinnemann filmed him without makeup so that the character's worries would be more visible.
Will Kane is unquestionably a hero, and unquestionably right. His name is Will; his first dialogue is "I do": This is a man who does things, who will do things, who does not allow the right thing to go undone.
Given the film's many possible interpretations, it's enlightening to try to keep all of them in mind when you watch it. Foreman's liberal anti-HUAC view is easy to spot, but it's far from overwhelming. In fact, you could make a case for the film being quite conservative, as Manfred Wiedhorn does, if only for rhetorical purposes, in this essay:
It shows a community cast into fear and trembling by a criminal justice system that lacks the will to put dangerous men away for good, either by capital punishment or by life sentences without parole. In numerous camera shots, an anguished Gary Cooper is seen walking the streets of the town, worried, even fearful, over the upcoming rendezvous and frustrated by the cowardice of the townspeople. Here you have -- the movie implies repeatedly -- the results of liberal social experimentation.
Even the local judge is hightailing it, lest Frank Miller wreak vengeance on him for passing sentence.
If what Will Kane is doing is definitely "right," then notice the varying degrees of "wrongness" exhibited by the other characters. Some flat-out refuse to help him. One man says he'll help -- "I was hoping people would feel that way," Will says; "What other way is there?" the man nobly replies -- only to change his mind when he discovers he was the sole volunteer. He only wants to do the "right thing" when success is guaranteed, when there is safety in numbers. Moreover, it turns out there are people in town who aren't on Will Kane's side at all, friends of Frank Miller who think the marshal brought his problems on himself and "needs some comeuppance."
Then there's Will's wife, a Quaker and a pacifist, both for religious and practical reasons. Her brother and father fought in the Civil War. "They were on the right side, but that didn't matter when the shooting started." She fears her husband, right though he may be, will end up just as dead as if he were wrong. Her point of view is understandable, though eventually she makes concessions that go along with the conservative interpretation. (The same concessions were required of anti-killing types in the recent Rambo and The A - Team.)
What's the big deal: Wiedhorn's essay comparing the film's liberal and conservative interpretations includes this statement: "It is oft said that what separates a work of art from mere bestseller schlock is that the former is relevant in each age while the latter dies with the fads and fashions of the day." By that definition, High Noon, while a "bestseller," is also art. A modern viewer can watch it and draw messages from it -- unintended yet wholly supportable by the film's content -- that are different from what viewers in 1952 saw, and even those contemporary viewers may have taken it to mean many different things. It's useful to ask the author what he had in mind when he wrote it, and that's the answer you'd have to go with if you were forced to nail down one "true" meaning. But what makes High Noon great is that its message, whatever one considers it to be, doesn't get in the way of its being a taut, suspenseful, and entertaining drama.
Further reading: In addition to the articles already linked, check out Tim Dirks' thorough analysis.
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Eric D. Snider (website) stands alone, just like the cheese.