High Noon (1952) Review

High Noon (1952) Director: Fred Zinnemann

“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it.”


A classic American Western, High Noon is a movie about time, courage, and a forthcoming day of reckoning. The story intensely plays out in almost precise real time –throughout the film we eagerly await the arrival of the noon train. The plot is about a lawman who refuses to abandon his duties in the midst of a crisis. The townsfolk reject him at first, until he is victorious and then he is celebrated as a hero. It stars a panoply of amazing actors including: Gary Cooper, a then-mostly-unknown Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell (of Gone With The Wind fame), Lon Chaney (son of the “man with a thousand faces”), as well as Lee Van Cleef (famous for his appearances in Sergio Leone’s classic “Dollars” trilogy). The role of the protagonist was initially offered to John Wayne who predictably turned it down due to his staunch political views (John Wayne thought the film was a critique of the government’s blacklisting of Hollywood under communist suspicions, and as a supporter of blacklisting, John Wayne later expressed regret at not chasing High Noon‘s writer, Carl Foreman, out of the country). The lead role was also offered to several other actors, including Gregory Peck who later lamented turning it down as one of the worst decisions of his career.

The plot centers on Hadleyville, a remote pioneer town in the New Mexico territory. The brave town marshal, Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) is getting married and he is retiring his badge in order to settle down with his wife, Amy (played by Grace Kelly in one of her first Hollywood roles). Just as they are about to leave town together, Will gets a telegram. A violent outlaw named Frank Miller is en route to Hadleyville to seek revenge on Kane. Frank Miller will arrive on the noon train with his posse (we are constantly directed to the ticking clock throughout the film until the train arrives). Years prior, Kane had put Miller behind bars but Miller was unexpectedly pardoned by the politicians of a “northern” town. Kane faces the difficult choice of quickly fleeing town with his wife, or else staying and facing down an opponent in a shoot-out that implies almost certain death.

“You’re a good looking boy, you have big broad shoulders, but he is a man. It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey, and you have a long way to go. You know something? I don’t think you will ever make it.”

The film invites the audience to reflect on differing approaches to confronting evil -whose responsibility is it to defend a town that is about to be invaded? When the time of crisis arrives, no one has the courage to fight alongside Will in the coming onslaught: Will’s wife, Amy, is a devout Quaker and pacifist who pleads with Will to leave town; in the saloon none of the men stand alongside Will (except one lone drunk); in the church the parishioners debate whether or not to help Will, despite the urgency of the situation (ultimately they decide it would be best for Will to be a coward and flee the town); even Will’s own deputy (played by Lloyd Bridges) abandons him in pursuit of a Mexican prostitute who was once the ‘lover’ of Will, as well (she was played by Katy Jurado). Will stands alone as time is running out -there is no heroic band of cowboys like we see in The Magnificent Seven. The hero, Will Kane, is a flawed man. We see him sweating, fearful, quiet, and conflicted. His friends are limited, and his is past shrouded in questionably moral decisions (i.e. a relationship with a prostitute). In addition, the film contains no vast celebratory sweeping desert landscapes that are so characteristic of Hollywood’s version of the old west. Instead High Noon is focused on a character study on Will Kane’s courage and his commitment to his town. When the time arrives -‘high noon’- the town boards itself up leaving Kane alone walking along the dusty road (in a now famous scene) as the train approaches carrying Frank Miller and his posse. We are treated to a wonderful montage reminiscent of Eisenstein’s early Soviet propaganda films that shows various townsfolk nervous about the impending conflict. The effect creates a chilling sense of dread in the viewer. In the course of the gunfight (there is never a face-to-face direct confrontation) Kane slowly kills off each of the outlaws with surprising help from his new bride who attacks Frank Miller in the end allowing Will Kane to finally kill him. In a certain light, the heroine saves the hero in High Noon. However, it is not a happy ending. When all the villains are killed, the town rushes out to celebrate their marshal but he merely sneers at them for all abandoning him. He casts his marshal star into the dirt and leaves town with his new wife to start anew.

The theme song for High Noon was “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” sung by Tex Ritter. It became a popular Country-Western hit. It won an Academy Award. High Noon also won a variety of other Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Gary Cooper). The cinematographer for the film was Floyd Crosby (father of musician, David Crosby).

High Noon was listed as a favorite of several U.S. Presidents, including Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton (who screened the film some 17 times at the White House). Leaders tend to see themselves in the character of William Kane. Some critics have suggested the story is a parallel of McCarthy era “red scare” and other Cold War issues along with the Korean War. Thus, it became something of a punching bag for conservatives and on the flip side the Soviet Union continued their censorship and criticism of American Westerns. John Wayne called it the most ‘un-American movie’ he’d ever seen. Per the director, the central theme of the film is an exploration of “commitment to duty under pressure” -a theme that is shared with other Westerns and also the memorable film version of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls (feel free to read my reflections on the film here). It is a decidedly undemocratic film -the hero goes against the overwhelming tide of public opinion and when victorious, he turns his back on the town. One fascinating bit of lore about the film: there are many clocks positioned ins scenes throughout the film that accurately portray the countdown to high noon -a detail that required a tremendous amount of planning in the production of the film. If I have one piece of criticism to offer of High Noon, it is that Gary Cooper appears aged, slow, and somewhat unfit for the role. That being said High Noon is an absolute classic of Western cinema.

Judge Mettrick: “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important. Now get out.”
Will Kane: “There isn’t time.”

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