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High Noon 2-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition
Lionsgate has revisited the 2002 Artisan Special Edition of High Noon, not improving much on the extras but finally coming through with the quality transfer this popular western deserves. High Noon is still a well-acted, fairly klunky, faux-profound script given good direction within a mediocre production. It's always been interpreted as a great Liberal statement, even enough for John Wayne and Howard Hawks to rebut / remake it with a hawkish slant in Rio Bravo. Fair enough. But to anyone willing to see it for what it is instead of what its nostalgia represents, High Noon isn't the flawless gem that popular reviewers take it for, and it's too confused to be considered Liberal or Conservative.
High Noon is a very budget-conscious show. Most Hollywood westerns of the time with stars as big as Gary Cooper were also being filmed in color, and this picture takes place on a B-Western back-lot with almost no special production at all. It's one of producer Stanley Kramer's earliest message pictures, his attempt (along with Carl Foreman, from whom he wrested co-producer credit) to make a grand statement about law 'n' order, the same way he 'came right out' with so-called bold statements on the Race issue (Home of the Brave) and disabled veterans (The Men). The movie has crisp direction by Fred Zinnemann and powerful performances, especially from Cooper and the marvelous Katy Jurado.
We studied the film at UCLA in the early 70s, using the school's large Stanley Kramer collection. The film theorists in Professor Stephen Mamber's class were impressed by the use of clocks: the filmmakers experimented with the notion of making the film play in real time. In one screening we clocked the clocks, so to speak, and they did indeed stay within a couple of minutes of where our clock did. So many are built into dialogue scenes that they had to be part of the original structure during shooting, and not an editorial trick imposed later in post-production, an oft repeated apocryphal claim. We compared the time structure to Robert Wise's earlier The Set-Up, but I forget what our conclusions were.
The feminists in the critical studies program also lauded the formulation of the Katy Jurado role. Helen Ramirez is the alternative to the Waspish Grace Kelly, the 'dark woman' or 'Mexican girlfriend' who usually dies to protect a hero who would never stoop to actually marry her. Ramirez is the most independent and sensible character in the show, taking no guff from punk Lloyd Bridges (an excellent jerk) and even telling off La Princess in no uncertain terms. Amy Fowler may be the socially correct choice for a bride, but the smart and worldly-wise Helen Ramirez has a real capacity to love. Marriage with Ramirez could be a great adventure, but the stiff Kane is too busy complicating his internal dilemmas.
Finally, it's obvious that High Noon is excellently edited, especially its use of the recurring Tex Ritter song to underscore Will Kane's isolation, and the dynamite metronome montage that kicks in as high noon approaches. Crisp cutting minimizes what is really a pretty unexciting set of confrontations, as Kane and Miller's men square off in Hadleyville before the stock, 'Drop yer gun or she's dead' conclusion. A lot of the success of this comes from the script, which makes early use of the same 'deadline' device that predominates many new action films. We're told that something dreadful is going to happen in X minutes -- the Titanic will go down, the bomb will go off. Time becomes an automatic suspense machine as the seconds tick away. And Carl Foreman even provides the clocks. Stylistically, High Noon is a triumph of talent over a second-rate production.
So what's the big objection? In a nutshell, High Noon is a stacked deck of clichés that aren't particularly useful as a meditation on law 'n' order, the American character, how to behave in society -- or even as a yardstick to Western Movie Wisdom. The messages delivered are inconsistent and contradictory, and ladled on with the subtlety of a shovel.
Marshall Kane's town is a rotten place filled with rotten people. For a supposedly Left-Wing tract, the film tries really hard to prove that Democracy doesn't work (ever been to a neighborhood meeting?) because people are basically selfish scum. The judge skedaddles, literally taking his American flag and the scales of justice with him (symbol! symbol!). Frank Miller's return obviously means death and tyranny, but so many of Hadleyville's able-bodied men are on Miller's side, you'd think Marshall Kane had framed the outlaw. (Now that would be a revelation...) Save for Kane, there's no decency in Hadleyville that isn't crippled like Lon Chaney, Jr., or powerless like the meeker among the citizens. Harry Morgan is a craven coward, Kane's Deputy is concerned only for his hurt feelings, and the whole congregation is a worst-case scenario of Bad Civics in Action. Best friend Jonas (Thomas Mitchell), who we expect to come to Kane's defense, instead uses the lack of consensus to squelch any momentum to support Kane in his hour of need.
One can understand why the saloon crowd might favor Miller, but for these stupid Church-going citizens not to realize that backing Kane is their only sane choice stacks the deck pretty high. It's essentially a ploy to let us know that only Will Kane has any morals or ethics, that only He actually cares enough about What's Right to stand up for it. Of course, things are manipulated so that Kane never gets to make his case. He gives feeble four-word speeches, like "I need help", and meekly accepts little crucifixions along the way. How Mr. Law 'n' Order stood up to drunks and dangerous thugs is a big question, when he's too straight-laced to use the tiny bit of influence or intimidation it would take to secure the help of his own deputy he so desperately needs. The Christ parallel is repeated again and again. When people don't rally to his aid, Kane remains silent, a queer combination of pride and humility. Carl Foreman even turns Helen Ramirez into a martyr-enabler. When one of her silent partners asks if she wants Kane given aid (it's understood that he has the power get some paid guns behind him) she says a simple 'no'. How can Kane undergo his test of character and will power, if he gets help from any quarter?
Now, there's no reason why Kramer and Foreman can't stack the deck any way they wish, but in this case, what's the point? The end result boils down to nothing more than a murky, 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do', basically celebrating stubborn individualist purity -- the kind which only exists in very, very simpleminded Westerns. The basic 'read' of High Noon is that Hadleyville is an America which won't stand up to defend its best and proudest, with the Liberal interpretation that Kane represents the beleaguered Foreman, one man alone against the scourge of the Blacklist. It doesn't add up to much, as the threat of Miller comes from outside the community, and Foreman's HUAC tormentors are part of the government itself. Unless you think that Frank Miller represents McCarthy, which isn't very apt.
It isn't in Foreman's character, but High Noon fits better as a Right Wing Conservative fantasy about America fighting Communism in foreign wars. Good ol' Kane (General MacArthur and company) put down EVIL five years ago (roughly the end of WW2), but now EVIL is back and it's personal. But nobody gives a damn, or worse, they're on the side of the Commies. Kane has to go it alone. Poor General MacArthur, stabbed in the back by his own government. This fits in well with the pacifist argument in High Noon, too. Amy Fowler is a very peculiar Quaker, from a strict sect that surely sees the need for a stronger Law 'n' Order profile than the average citizen. Pacifists object to fighting in wars, not defending their homes against criminals or local lawlessness. First thing Quakers would do is close the saloon. When Amy blasts Robert J. Wilke in the back, the movie crudely suggests that Christian pacifism is an illusion. Anybody who doesn't pick up a gun is a wuss, and Amy wins the right to keep her man the American Way, by killing for it.
The end of High Noon is the biggest puzzle. It plays as emotionally correct, but doesn't satisfy either read of the movie. Kane tosses his star in the dust to show contempt for the town that hypocritically comes out to congratulate him after the fight -- "I was rootin' for ya, Butch!" Perhaps John Wayne and Howard Hawks were correct when they interpreted this ending as Kramer and Foreman saying, 'Screw America.' Hadleyville isn't only a bunch of jerks, there are good women (Virginia Christine, whose uncle would later become a Pod in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and loyal kids like the one who so badly want to help. Kane's turning his back on all of them. Now he and his snooty wife can go open a store 'somewhere else', where they couldn't have hidden from Miller. Are people in this next town going to be any different? Or will they be more scum unworthy of the ethically superior Mr. and Mrs. Kane? The 'message' of High Noon is either very confused, or very simpleminded and useless. People always finish the film saying how deeply they feel its message, and then they can't come up with an answer for what it means to them.
As a drama without symbolic significance, High Noon is just fine. I like to read nuances into the Kane-Ramirez relationship, and criticize Amy's tissue-thin commitment to the husband she expects to turn from hawk to dove overnight. The Dimitri Tiomkin music is always a kick, as is the plain-wrap Tex Ritter song that opens the plain-wrap film so perfectly. It's also fun to see eternal bad guys Lee Van Cleef and Robert J. Wilke in this early team-up, to of course be gunned down as they were again and again through the following decade.
Mad Magazine recognized High Noon as the key Western of the fifties. Mad lampooned 'adult Westerns' by showing a picture of a traumatized Will Kane shooting a hole through his pocket watch, as if he had a neurotic aversion to clocks as a symbol of the existential tyranny of Time. The earliest Mad spoof, Hah! Noon!, had Kane solve his little problem with 'Killer Diller Miller' by calmly realizing that the situation is too big for the local police -- in the final panel Miller is met at the train by a thousand National Guard Troops with guns and tanks. The spoof had one of my favorite Western gag lines, ribbing the obvious doubles for Bridges and Cooper in the big barn fight: "Now my stuntman's going to give your stuntman the beating of his life!"
High Noon must be the most quoted and re-shot Western ever. Besides the fact that the Gunsmoke TV series is basically a spinoff, every smart-aleck director has restaged bits of the film in critical mode. Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch riffed on the kids who mirror the bloodthirsty truth of their parents in their play: "Bang! You're dead, Kane!" Sam Fuller did a wild and wooly number on the 'Drop yer gun or she's dead' conclusion I mentioned above. In his Forty Guns, Barry Sullivan just blasts down hostage Barbara Stanwyck so he can get a clean shot at sniveling bad guy John Ericson, and then walks calmly past her body, professionally aloof from his handiwork. Sergio Leone turned the first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time In the West into an extended parody of High Noon's three gunmen hanging out at the train station, intimidating the telegraph clerk to pass the time.
Liongate's Ultimate Collectors Edition of High Noon comes six years after Artisan's 'ordinary' Collector's Edition. "Ultimate" in this case means an excellent transfer, finally, for this deserving picture. Clearly sourced from better elements, the visuals have excellent contrast and stability; the presentation easily outclasses the early transfer and betters what's been seen on cable TV. The soundtrack is provided in a restored mono and an enhanced Dolby track. The film is accompanied by a commentary with Maria Cooper-Janis, Jonathan Foreman, and Tim Zinnemann, joined this time by the late John Ritter, Tex Ritter's son.
Both older docus are present, the fairly good making-of piece with Leonard Maltin (it has interviews with Zinnemann, Kramer and Lloyd Bridges) and the second, amateurish piece partly produced and hosted by Maria Cooper-Janis, Gary's daughter. She reads some terribly written 'host' copy that doesn't begin to tie together a lot of bland observations by High Noon offspring who really don't have much connection to the subject -- the sons of Zinnemann, Foreman and Kelly. But they've certainly authorized a handsome restoration. 1
A third docu has been added, a 50 minute piece called Inside High Noon. It simply retells the same story in a slightly different style with pieces of new interviews and what look like different excerpts of the same interviews as before. The docu looks like it was finished in very lo-resolution digital video; the overused feature clips have been rendered in a poor man's hi-con that's painful on the eyes, especially after seeing the pristine transfer.
The Tex Ritter aspect gets more screen time too, with an unpolished but interesting visit to a Tex Ritter museum in Carthage, Texas hosted by a charming lady docent. The radio interview with Tex is repeated from the previous disc, but the best new extra is a ragged but effective videotape of Ritter singing High Noon's Oscar-winning song on the Jimmy Dean show. There's nothing Ultimate about this special edition, but the excellent transfer silences our objections. This version is worth buying.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, High Noon rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent At last.
Supplements: commentary, three docus, Tex Ritter performance and radio interview, visit to the Tex Ritter museum featurette.
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: June 15, 2008
1. I've been told that the Cooper estate does have a substantial interest in one of the actor's very best westerns, the terrific Delmer Daves movie The Hanging Tree with its wonderful Maria Schell performance. Warners would like to restore the film, but some sort of dispute prevents the project from advancing. I certainly hope the studio and the heirs work out the problems, if any.
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