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Entries in High Noon [1952] (1)

Tuesday
Sep202016

High Noon (1952)

Love It and Leave It

When asked about his Academy-Award winning performance as beleaguered lawman Will Kane in 1952's High Noon, Gary Cooper gave most of the credit to stomach ulcers. The role called for Kane to stand alone against a town of ungrateful and dubiously scrupulous citizens, who see his arch-nemesis’ return from prison as maybe not such a bad thing. At every moment, Cooper's face conveys the dual pangs of human discomfort and fictitious existential dread roiling around his innards.

It is perhaps one of cinema’s greatest ironies that, when Cooper was unable to attend the 1953 Oscars, John Wayne accepted the award for him. Wayne would later call High Noon the “most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life,” thanks in large part to Cooper’s portrayal of a wishy-washy marshal in a town full of cowards. Hard to believe The Duke could be such a dunderhead.

Director Fred Zinnemann's real-time Western held an unflattering mirror up to a nation that, ironically, loved what it saw. High Noon was a massive hit with critics and audiences, even though it delivered a scathing critique of the climate of fear and conspiracy gripping America at the time. This was the early 50's, remember, when Washington was still keen on sending down un-Constitutional monstrosities from on high, with names like "blacklist" and "The House Un-American Activities Committee" (HUAC).

Back to those ulcers. We meet Kane at his wedding to a lovely young Quaker named Amy (Grace Kelly). Even through the film's black-and-white filter, I could tell Will looked a little green. For him, marriage represents the beginning of one life and the end of another: shortly after the ceremony, he and Amy are supposed to hop onto their carriage and ride away from the guns, booze, and gossip of “civilized” living, toward the non-aggressive simplicity of Quakerism.

Meanwhile, a trio of criminals passes through town and settles in at the train depot. Their leader, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is scheduled to arrive in seventy minutes, at which point the four horsemen will seek out and kill the marshal that sent Miller away five years ago. Word spreads quickly, and the townsfolk urge Kane to take Amy and run. As you can imagine, Kane ultimately decides to stick around and posse up as many deputized guns as he can. Surely, he thinks, a miniscule threat can’t withstand the righteous fury of an entire town united!

One slight problem with this brilliant plan: No one will take up the cause. As the clock ticks closer to noon, Kane meets with just about every able-bodied person in town, from the gang who helped him bring Miller down a half-decade ago to the angry church mob who sees Kane’s righteous stance as an act of selfishness that might get everyone killed. Kane’s former deputy (Lloyd Bridges) is pissed at having been passed over for the marshal’s job. Kane’s ex-lover and local saloon manager (Katy Jurado) abruptly liquidates her stake in the town and makes plans to leave on the same train Miller’s arriving on. Even Amy turns her back on her newly minted husband, outraged at his inability to leave violence behind.

By making their film a real-time thriller, Zinnemann and writer Carl Foreman illustrate just how quickly a society’s values can crumble in the face of nonspecific threats. Once the clock starts ticking towards mid-day, High Noon becomes a documentary of devolution; we watch in horror as the once-happy community splinters, then rationalizes, then turns downright venomous toward the one man who wants to protect himself, his family, and his town from the real threat to their values: complacency.

Yes, it would have been so much easier to inform Miller that his quarry had left town, and to take the chance that he and his gang wouldn’t tear up the place—or take root in it, as they had before Kane showed up all those years ago. Their memory of what Frank Miller was has softened with time, replaced by a desire to relive the fun parts of lawlessness that they’ve since romanticized. Kane is the conscience that the town espouses itself as having, but which is quickly ignored at the first sign of trouble.

Instead of spoiling High Noon’s climax, I’d like to share a little more history about the making of the film, which offers some eerie parallels. Producer Stanley Kramer and writer Carl Foreman were not just producing partners, but also army buddies. When Foreman, a self-identified member of the Communist Party, was called to testify before the HUAC, he refused to give up the names of other suspected Hollywood Communists (unlike the aforementioned great American Hero, John Wayne). Foreman was blacklisted; bought out of his partnership by Kramer, who didn’t want the hassle or bad publicity; and forced to move his family to England to escape federal prosecution.

It’s comforting to think of High Noon as “just a really great Western” (it is), or the Red Scare as “just a really dark period in our history” (it was), but Zinnemann’s film is as timely today as it was sixty-four years ago. Particularly in this political season, heightened by the angry din of media voices and imperfect candidates, it’s often hard to know what to think or where to stand, and with whom. The sad lesson of High Noon is that sometimes the only right answer is to go it alone, to head for the figurative (or perhaps even literal) mountains. Sure, there’ll be cries of “Coward!” or “Traitor!”, but they’ll eventually give way to screams, then wailing, then silence as whatever is left of so-called civility devours itself in the desert.