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Film critics often simplify the Western by dividing it into two categories: the good-guys-wear-white/bad-guys-wear-black horse operas that promulgate the mythic heros of the frontier, and the darker films that use the Western form to comment on other topics such as racism (The Searchers), war (The Wild Bunch) or the Western itself (Unforgiven). High Noon (1952) in many ways gives lie to the idea that the Western is really that simple. Sure it contains an iconic good guy (Gary Cooper's brave Sheriff Will Kane), a treacherous, vengeful bad guy, and a street-clearing duel. But what High Noon did was wipe the typical Western devices off the board and start from scratch with a clean, minimalist approach that is anything but simple.
The film introduces us to Kane as he is marrying the much younger Amy, played by a pre-Hitchcock Grace Kelly. The wedding is bittersweet, since it will take Kane away from Hadleyville, the town that he polices with the care and personal attention that you would expect from a Cooper lawman. The festivities are cut short, however, as word arrives that Frank Miller, a very very bad man that Kane put away, has been released from prison and is on a train headed straight to town. A train, that is, that will arrive at high noon.
From here the story is told in more-or-less real time. Continuous and dramatic close-ups of clocks never let us forget Kane's approaching deadline. This may have been a plot device used to sell the movie, but it works on another level, helping us to feel the pressure on Kane. When we feel time winding down we know he feels it too.
The townspeople usher Kane and Amy away on a horse and carriage but somewhere on the open road Will decides that he has to return to Hadleyville to settle the score himself. His great sense of duty won't let him allow others to risk their lives over something that he feels is his responsibility. But what he finds on his return is not what he expects.
As noon approaches the men and women of the town one by one abandon Kane. They are too afraid to fight and they are not tough enough to do it out of loyalty. Instead they leave Kane alone. The more we discover about the town, the more we realize that the romantic image of the frontier town is tarnished. There are implications of an affair with a Mexican woman played by Katy Jurado and a surprising stab in the back administered by Deputy Harvey, played by a fresh-faced Lloyd Bridges.
While Gregory Peck may have been the studio's first choice for Will Kane, Gary Cooper himself is the perfect actor to play this role. His presence is short-hand for a kind of perfect lily-white hero, but to see him in such a lonely state, and during those moments when he really loses his cool, and finally, during the dark, iconic ending, where his final gesture destroys the notion of defending those who were too cowardly to help, is quite a shock.
But as the film was warping the high moral claims of previous Westerns it was also making a modern political statement. When Kane ultimately hears the bells ring twelve and stands alone, he carries not only the weight of those abandoned in their time of need, but of those in Hollywood left for dead during the then-ongoing McCarthy hearings on Communism in the entertainment industry. When Kane refuses to leave, even though the people he is protecting are those who refused to assist him, he stands for those protecting the right of every person, including traitors, to hold their own beliefs, even though it meant being black-listed themselves. Many of those filmmakers and actors never worked in Hollywood again.
The film caused a stir over these implications and, although the McCarthy hearings are long over, it still packs a wallop in describing the daily threats to our modern liberties.
This isn't to make the film sound heavy-handed, however. Ultimately it is a satisfying and beautiful film and one that anyone can enjoy.
PICTURE / SOUND:
The picture on the Republic Silver Screen Classics release of High Noon is extraordinary. The film represents some of the best black-and-white cinematography of its time and here the print is nearly flawless. Given that the cinematography is pretty sophisticated, especially in the sequences leading up to the noon showdown, the improved picture is greatly appreciated. The film is appropriately presented in full frame, the aspect ratio of its original release.
The sound is not especially remarkable, which is a good thing, given the age of the film. It is clear and well-mixed.
The disc features a 22 minute documentary on the film hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring Lloyd Bridges, Director Fred Zinnemann, and Producer Stanley Kramer. The documentary alternates between recollections of the film's production and a more detailed account of the media's reception to film's political statements than I've been able to give. As far as these documentaries go it is better than average, although Maltin, while well-meaning comes off a bit mawkish.
The only other feature of note is the original trailer, which sold the heroic characteristics of the film.
High Noon is an important part of American film history. References to it appear constantly, from Dirty Harry to Ghost Dog, from The Matrix to Shanghai Noon (obviously). The only real criticism I have is over the garish silver/rainbow packaging with which Republic saddles it's Silver Screen Classics series. It's a little hard on the eyes, but don't let it fool you. What awaits within is definitely worth your full attention.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.E-mail Gil at [email protected]