High Noon (1952)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 April (11.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve said before on these pages that I came pretty late to the Westerns party. In an effort to catch up, I scoured the ‘top’ lists and sought out the greatest offerings from the genre, a pretty tall order because everyone has their own individual favourites, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who puts the effort into writing about films they’ve especially enjoyed deserve to have them seen by others and that’s just what I’ve tried to do. From list to list, certain titles invariably come out on top again and again, and High Noon is one of them. This 1952 offering, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gary Cooper, was one of the big winners at the Academy Awards, inexplicably losing the Best Picture accolade to The Greatest Show on Earth, but handing Best Actor to Cooper whilst it also won in the editing and music categories.

So I’ll just put it out there right now – since watching High Noon, it has clearly become my favourite Western, in fact forget the Westerns part, it’s up there with my all-timers. After finishing it the first time, I had the strong urge to play the whole thing over again. Seeing it ahead of this review was just a pleasure, and I’ve no idea how many times I have dug out the disc since buying it. It’s just one of those titles, I guess; I don’t get bored of it and find myself getting caught up in the film’s ratcheting tension with each and every viewing. Irrational aside – there’s a small part of me hoping, this time, that Cooper will forget his obligations to Hadleyville and keep that wagon rolling, enjoy the company of the lovely Grace Kelly in whatever life they choose instead of turning around in order to face Frank Miller. Just keep going, Gary – they don’t deserve you!

In the interests of putting together enough material for a balanced critique, I jotted some bullet points as the film was playing. Here’s what I produced:

I hope you can read that – if not, here’s a larger version that will open in a new tab (I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting, sorry). Don’t worry; I’m not about to go into each and every point here, but I would like to start by eulogising Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, in particular the High Noon ballad that opens the picture, as the credits roll and Miller’s compadres assemble in readiness for their showdown. If there’s one single element that draws me back to High Noon, it’s that simple song, with its melancholic Tex Ritter vocals about Cooper’s character, Marshal Will Kane, begging for his new wife Amy (Kelly) not to forsake him while he meets his destiny against Miller. It’s lovely and haunting, and it follows Kane about for the next eighty five minutes as he prepares for his fate, indeed much of the film’s score is a riff on the ballad.

Stripped back, High Noon is a fairly straightforward and even standard Western story. Kane is the Marshal in a little backwater town named Hadleyville. It’s his last day in the job before standing down, and he’s getting married in a little Quaker ceremony to Amy. As he’s preparing to leave town for good, he learns that a dangerous gunslinger called Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from gaol and is on his way back; his train will arrive at noon. Years earlier, Marshall was a troubling presence in Hadleyville before Kane apprehended him and oversaw the delivery of the death penalty by Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger). With Miller gone, Hadleyville grew in peace and prosperity under Kane’s marshalship, but he and the judge both recall the villain’s portentous words of vengeance when he was convicted, and in the meantime his date with the noose was prorogued to a prison sentence. Kane’s torn between skipping and leaving Hadleyville to its fate, or staying and fighting Miller. What he doesn’t count on are the feelings of the town itself, the community of friends that steadily deserts him as the clock ticks down to noon, not to mention Amy’s vehement disagreement with his decision to remain.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story opens at around quarter to eleven and the events building up to Miller’s arrival play out in real time, meaning that over the next hour Kane comes to realise that he has to stand up to him alone. The ticking of the clock, revisited often with the minute hands progressing inexorably, generate instant suspense as Kane is refused again and again by people he thought of as friends.

There’s tones of plot getting peeled away as the clock ticks down, and it’s a product of the slick editing by Elmo Williams and Harry W Gerstad that a raft of stories connected to so many individuals are outlined or even hinted at. By the end, High Noon feels like a much longer film than its running time due to the sheer swathes of clever characterisation and plot developments that are being rolled out all the time. One of the principal sub-plots involve Ellen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), owner of Hadleyville’s drinking hole and hotel. It emerges that she was Miller’s girl once upon a time, before turning her affections to Kane and finally to his young Deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Her ‘previous’ is a great source of tension between Kane and Pell, the way she’s a lot wiser than the latter and still harbours feelings for Kane, knowing – and teling Pell – that he isn’t half the man the Marshal is. Moreover, Ellen develops into the town’s heart. She knows exactly what will happen, that Kane will be abandoned by the community, and quickly sells her business and packs to leave as she understands that the day’s events will mark the end of Hadleyville as she knows it. The contrast between her, Kane’s ex, and Amy, his present, is irresistible, even down to the black clothes Ellen wears jarring with the bride’s virginal white dress. For much of High Noon, its emotions are firmly in tune with Jurado’s character, plain speaking, passionate and beautiful, against the callow Amy, who only comes into her own at the end.

And Ellen’s only the highlight. Bridges teases all the resentment and jealousy out of Pell, loathing Kane’s status and wanting his job, whilst knowing deep down that he’ll never measure up the same. Lon Chaney Jr puts in an appearance as Hadleyville’s former Marshal, broken by thankless years of service and seeing nothing but doom in Kane’s sticking around. Mayor Jonas Henderson is played by Thomas Mitchell, who reveals the town’s yellow heart during an impassioned speech to the church congregation, arguing they’re all better off without Kane because they might get left alone by Miller if he isn’t around, in the course of which exposing the tissue-thin extent of his friendship with the Marshal. There’s also the town barber who orders more coffins to be built when he hears Miller is approaching, the weasly hotel clerk who has nothing good to say about the Marshal, Kane’s friend Sam (Tom London) who’s too terrified to help out and gets his wife to make his excuses, the young lad who’s devoted to him and Kruger’s judge who knows exactly when he needs to move on.

You guessed it, Hadleyville is stuffed with a rogues’ gallery of selfish and greedy people, happy to be sheltered by Kane when it suits them but quick to turn their backs when the going gets tough. Towering above them all is Kane himself, wandering the dusty streets with that Tiomkin ballad playing in the background and looking more hopeless and solitary with each passing minute. Gary Cooper wasn’t the first choice for the role. Acting in movies since the early 1920s, Cooper was entering his fifties when High Noon was released and looked more like Grace Kelly’s father than her groom. Other names included Gregory Peck, who was concerned about how it would play against his previous Western The Gunfighter, and would later admit that turning it down was one of the worst career decisions he made. To add to Cooper’s problems, he was ill at the time, suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments, though in the film this all worked to his advantage as he was so convincingly able to convey the physical toll on Kane and needing little in terms of make-up to replicate the character’s hardships.

High Noon’s deeper subtext is a reflection of the time in which it was made, when the House of Un-American Activities Committee was fixing its gaze on Hollywood and blacklisting many of its major players. One such was the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, a former Communist who knew his time in the American industry was up, despite Cooper’s defence of him before the Committee. Foreman turned in a script about one man fighting the forces of ambivalence alone in a way that apparently mirrored his own plight. Zinneman, who won two Academy Awards for direction, was only nominated here, but made his Western as a taut thriller, with some brilliant shots – those close-ups of the town’s faces and of Miller’s gang staring menacingly right into the camera, the railroad filmed from the tracks themselves (which as the train neared almost did for Zinneman and his cameraman as they didn’t realise until the last moment that its brakes were failing), the zoom out from a beleagured Kane as he’s left utterly alone on the deserted streets.

John Wayne, a supporter of blacklisting, disliked the film and made Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as a riposte from the more conservative perspective. Over the years, it’s become something of a tradition to fall either on one side or the other. The difference is that in the Hawks-Wayne movie the emphasis is on togetherness, the banding of ‘brothers’ (Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) against a common enemy, It’s a warmer message, certainly, and I refer you to Colin’s excellent review for more on this affirmed classic of the genre, but like him I tend to strip away the politics (the benefit of being born much later than the sociological drivers behind both films) and look at the end products, the pictures we’re left to admire today, on their own terms. I like Rio Bravo, but for me High Noon represents something of a pinnacle, a film I enjoy and am gripped by with every viewing. From my point of view, it’s perilously close to perfection.

High Noon: *****

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13 Replies to “High Noon (1952)”

  1. Really excellent, Mike – well done indeed.
    Firstly, thanks for the link, that’s very generous and I appreciate it. Anyway, just to pick up on a few things:

    The writing here is of course a key element – and always is when we talk about great movies – but there’s so much backstory fitted into the relatively short running time that you’d think much would be glossed over or rushed. Yet it’s not; the way it’s all written, and acted too, means that viewers are never left feeling short changed by the variety of little peeks into the past.

    I’m glad too that you spoke about the Jurado/Kelly dynamic. There’s a tendency to see westerns as a male preserve but to do so is to ignore the vital contributions made in so many movies by the female characters. It’s by no means the first time that the presence and actions of the female characters have a strong, perhaps even direct, effect on the development of the plot and the male leads.

    On a technical level, that reverse zoom is a breathtaking piece of work. I first saw the film when I was quite young and unaware of the idea cinema had its own language; even then I was struck by the drama of the shot – genuine artistry.

    The political subtext of the film doesn’t interest me greatly. It does help contextualize it and, as with all movies, speaks of the time in which it was made. However, not knowing anything about the background doesn’t detract from it in the least – the film’s classic theme transcends politics and its era, and stands up on its own terms.

    1. Thanks Colin, especially for the fulsome comment. It was an honour to be able to link to your Rio Bravo article that told it from the ‘opposite’ perspective, not that it’s really opposite but you know what I mean.

      As you say, the acting and writing are really the key elements, aren’t they, along with the direction and editing to provide that upsurge in tension. But the lingering looks between actors, the snippets of dialogue, all add up to this mixture of emotions that is brought to the boil with Miller’s impending arrival. Of these, Jurado really struck me – not just obviously gorgeous, but her entire back story summed up in how she reacted to other characters. Superb.

      It’s sort of a pity that I caught it when I did, I would rather have seen it much younger and been swept up in the drama for longer, but it’s better than never having seen it at all.

      Thanks again. Glad you liked the piece – I really enjoyed writing this one.

      1. It’s clear that you not only had a good time watching the movie but also with the write-up.
        Jurado is such a watchable actress in anything – always brought real class to her performances.

      2. I was a bit worried beforehand that it would just come out as a gush. I think you’ve said yourself that it can be hard to write about your favourites, but in the end it just flowed quite well, clearly a sign of something I liked doing.

        In the middle of a sprawling piece on Ben-Hur at the moment, heading towards essay length, which seems appropriate for the film. So much to talk about where that one’s concerned…

  2. Great review, Mike. I agree with the sentiment that it’s hard to write about a favourite, but I think this is thoughtful observation/analysis rather than a simple gush.

    I’ve not seen High Noon, in part because I’ve always suspected I’ll love it and therefore am almost put off in case I don’t! For some reason real-time narratives always appeal to me, and its politics (which I’m broadly sympathetic to) are always the focus of any review. Indeed, it’s refreshing to read a piece that mentions them almost as an addendum.

    Anyway, I recorded it yesterday, so hopefully I’ll just dive in soon.

    1. Thanks very much Bob – it helped to have a notebook to hand this time. It’s not something I normally do as I prefer to just watch films rather than make notes as I go along, but it was good to be able to refer to some of the points I’d written down and capture the overall tone.

      I get what you mean about your reasons for not seeing High Noon – I feel the same way about several pictures, including the still-to-watch Seven Samurai (one day, oh yes, one day). I suppose one factor that might help is that High Noon isn’t very long – crazy the amount they pack into the running time, really. As for the politics, the film can be enjoyed just as much without even thinking about the sentiments behind it, indeed that should be the case as we’re talking about events from more than sixty years ago and a good film needs to be more than mere allegory for when those things are distant and forgotten, and High Noon is definitely that.

      I hope you do get to see it and that it lives up to your expectations.

  3. Like Colin, let me say what a good review this is, not least for focusing on the female roles, which so often get left behind in westerns! A teensy technical point chum – at the end of the penultimate para you refer to a ‘zoom out’ but that was most definitely a tracking shot (i.e. the camera moved rather than having the focal length changed). There were zoom lenses used at the time (most notably for that shot in the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) but it was incredibly rare until the 1960s.

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