High Noon (1952)
Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Written by: Carl Foreman (from the magazine story by John W. Cunningham)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges
It’s a bit surprising to me how few Westerns I’ve written about so far in this project. There will certainly be more upcoming, but, for a favorite style of mine, the Western genre is somewhat underrepresented in my collection. High Noon is one of the most classic examples of the golden age of Hollywood Westerns, and it stands out in contrast to the later Westerns of Sergio Leone that I’ve already written about, and even to the contemporary output of Western auteur John Ford. High Noon is something of a morality tale, and an allegory for the HUAC hearings led by Joseph McCarthy, with the film using the quintessential American film genre to subvert conventionally understood “American values” of the time. It’s one of the most important movies of its time, both for its content and message, and for its unique presentation of a story unfolding in real time. Watching it for this project, however, I was left wondering how a movie like High Noon might connect with modern first-time viewers.
High Noon takes place in the span of a couple of hours on the morning that Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is married to his new bride, Amy (Kelly), and is preparing to leave the town of Hadleyville for a new life on the frontier as a storekeeper. However, that afternoon brings the news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer whom Kane had jailed, has been released and is set to arrive in Hadleyville on the high noon train with a score to settle. The town elders, along with Amy, a Quaker pacifist, urge Marshal Kane to flee the town and Miller’s gang, but he finds himself duty-bound to protect his town until the new Marshal arrives. In the short amount of time that he has left until Miller’s train arrives, Kane tries to round up a posse of deputies to head off the gang, but one by one, the townsfolk turn their backs on him, including his deputy, Harvey Pell (Bridges), and his new bride. When high noon comes around, Kane is left alone to defend the town he swore to protect, despite their unwillingness to fight alongside him.
Taken on its own merits, High Noon is a pretty great Western. It features Gary Cooper in a signature performance, one that would codify the trope of the stern, virtuous lawman. The cinematography is beautiful black and white, and it captures the essence of the stock frontier town perfectly. In fact, I think when most people picture a town’s main street from a Western movie, it’s the main street of Hadleyville that they envision, complete with Marshal Kane striding across the boardwalk towards his fateful confrontation. The film’s theme, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” is featured throughout the film, echoing its plot points, and kicking off a trend of Western films featuring country theme songs. The film builds suspense throughout, delaying the gratification of its central conflict until the final few minutes, but constantly teasing its villain’s arrival through the highlighting of clocks and other markers of the passing of time. This device of a film playing out in (almost) real time must have seemed incredibly novel at the time, as the audience is put into the same mindset as Kane, counting down the minutes and seconds until Miller arrives, bringing with him vengeance and destruction. In short, High Noon is one of the most influential and innovative Westerns of its time period. Though there are a handful of other 1950s Westerns that could stake claim to this title, it’s not hyperbole to mark High Noon as the archetype of the classic Hollywood Western film.
Digging below the surface of the film’s production, and exploring its historical context, one in which cowboys became culture warriors, reveals a deeper level of significance and importance to High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, a one-time member of the Communist party, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had refused to implicate others, resulting in his blacklisting from Hollywood. The incident resulted in the dissolution of his partnership with Hollywood mogul Stanley Kramer, and in Foreman’s eventual expatriation to Britain along with a handful of other blacklisted screenwriters and directors. Though High Noon was currently in production when Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC, it isn’t difficult to read between the film’s lines and see it as a critique of the Red Scare, generally. Like those accused of Communist sympathies and associations in McCarthy’s witch hunt, Kane is abandoned and disowned by longtime friends and family. Though she returns to his side in the end and plays a pivotal role in Kane’s defeat of Miller’s gang, even Amy abandons her husband. Kane is forced, largely, to stand on his own, defending his values and principles in the face of unpopular public opinion. The film’s political allegory was publicly acknowledged at the time, and John Wayne famously turned down the role of Marshal Kane because he thought that the film was un-patriotic, later publicly relishing his role in chasing Foreman from the industry. In films like High Noon and Wayne’s response film, Rio Bravo, the frontier provided a historical context for a debate over modern American ideology.
High Noon shows further progressive leanings in its treatment of the character of Helen Ramirez (Jurado). Helen is the only Hispanic character in the film, and, though it isn’t made explicit, she is clearly a prostitute. Despite this, she is granted a position of great importance in the film’s narrative, and also within the hierarchy of the town. Helen has been romantically involved in the past with both Frank Miller and Marshal Kane, and when High Noon starts, she is with Deputy Pell, however her promiscuity isn’t judged by the film or the characters in it. She’s a source of wisdom and strength within the community, and she’s respected as a businesswoman by the town’s elders. When contrasted with Kane’s wife, Amy, Helen is shown to be more loyal and pragmatic, reminding Amy that if Kane were still her man that she would stand by his side. By choosing her battles, Helen remains above the fray, and, from this vantage point, she seems to have the best perspective on the town’s conflict. I’m not exactly sure what to take away from High Noon’s treatment of its only ethnic minority character, but I think that it’s an honest and unusual characterization for the time, and I appreciate that the filmmakers made it a point to include a character this complex in a film that is otherwise fairly straightforward.
It was nice to have an excuse to go back and rewatch High Noon, because it had been at least a decade since the last time I really watched it all the way through, and I doubt that the urge to pull it off the shelf would have otherwise presented itself anytime soon. For Western fans, I think that the movie is still pretty enjoyable, but I imagine that many other audiences might have a bit of trouble getting into it. Although it’s briskly paced, clocking in under 90 minutes, there is little action to speak of. I think that most modern audiences might find the film’s central conflict to be boring, rather than fraught with tension, and that the subtext of the Hollywood blacklist might be less interesting to viewers not already invested in film history. Still, though, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of a film like High Noon at the time it was released. It introduced progressive ideologies into what was, to that point, a fairly reactionary and conservative film genre. High Noon also transformed film style and introduced a radical new storytelling device by letting its story unfold in real time. However, I think that these stylistic innovations would probably be lost on most modern audiences because we’re so far removed from the film’s initial release. I enjoy High Noon, and I was glad to have the opportunity to watch it again, but it will probably be another ten years before I decide to revisit it. It’s a great movie, and deserving of the praise that it’s received throughout the years, but there are other Westerns of this period that I just enjoy a bit more.