High Noon

US (1952) Dir. Fred Zinnemann

I must open with the confession that I am not a big fan of westerns. Never have been really but when High Noon, considered by many to be the definitive western, appeared on TV the other day I finally relented and crossed this seminal opus from my “to watch” list.

The story is very simple but hides a supposed allegorical commentary on the Anti-communist movement in Hollywood at the time, in which anyone known or suspected of being a communist was blacklisted. The Marshal of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) ends his tenure by marrying Quaker girl Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and leaving the town one day before his replacement arrives.

Just as the newlyweds are about to depart Kane receives a telegram informing him Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a psychotic outlaw he sent to be hanged has been pardoned and will return on the noon train. Kane sees it as his duty to stay and face Miller and his men but when he tries to raise a posse, nobody in the town wants to know.

If we look beyond the political subtext this is a tale that explores the fine line between bravery and stupidity, stubbornness and duty and how prioritising the welfare of many over that of your own rarely yields reward. Yet this isn’t an irrefutable case of cowardice, as the story goes to great lengths to delineate in a compelling manner.

Kane and Amy did leave town upon hearing of Miller’s impending return but Kane’s conscience gets the better of him. Fearing his leaving the town without a lawful figurehead, even for 24 hours, was poor form, and that it as his mess to clear up, Kane turns the carriage around.

Since it was his friends and colleagues in Hadleyville who encouraged Kane to leave, he was really under no obligation to return, explaining the less than enthusiastic welcome when he does. Amy is a pacifist in accordance with her religion, a stance many of the townsfolk suddenly adopt when the news of Miller’s return spreads, and head for the hills themselves.

This include Kane’s old flame, Mexican Helen Ramirez (Katy Jorado) – also an ex of Miller’s – who happens to now be in a relationship with Kane’s deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Harvey steps up when Kane begins enlisting help, but convinces himself Kane didn’t put Harvey forward to be the new Marshal for personal reasons, and their relationship this sour.

On the other hand the consensus is that while Kane is the best marshal the town ever had, people don’t want to see him die, hence their insistence he leaves so Miller will have to forego his revenge. This logic is infallible and comes from the heart in some instances but others are quick to turn their back whilst singing the same tune; some are even friend with Miller and think Kane deserves his comeuppance.

In just 82 minutes director Fred Zinnemann notches up the tension as every second passes by, ensuring a timepiece of some kind is shown with a reminder of the countdown status. Or, the simple imagery of Miller’s men – brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Pierce (Bob Wilkes) and Colby (Lee Van Cleef) – becoming restless as they wait at the train station, their sinister presence unnerving he poor stationmaster.

Whilst it might seem Carl Foreman’s script, based on a short story The Tin Star by John W. Cunningham, goes round in circles making the same arguments ad infinitum, this is an integral part of establishing Kane’s character. He is told almost unanimously to walk away but still refuses. It’s rare to have a protagonist who frustrates the audience by being too loyal to his duty, yet this doesn’t translate into rooting for the enemy either.

With Kane essentially shut out by everyone else, through self-preservation or sheer cowardice, the parallels with the Hollywood blacklisting become clearer. It was in fact Foreman who was the real life victim, a former Communist who refused to name others thus ending his career in Tinsel Town, ironically leaving with a script to a multi-Oscar winning film.

And with this legacy comes the influence High Noon has had on other films. The final shoot out has been copied and lampooned in films ranging from Carry On Cowboy to Blazing Saddles, while it is no secret that Han Solo’s outfit in Star Wars: A New Hope was based on Kane’s outfit.

Interestingly, while this is a western in every conceivable aspect, there is a faint touch of film noir to be felt, especially in the undisclosed dealings of Helen Ramirez. She has that femme fatale vibe about her – a tough talking woman with many male admirers who can’t keep her, while her sole interest is herself. Helen’s black hair and attire is in stark contrast to the lighter coloured outfits of the chaste blonde Amy.

This was actually Grace Kelly’s second film role and it shows in her by-the-numbers love interest performance. Compare this to her work with Hitchcock just two years later and it’s night and day. Katy Jurado is much more vivacious as Helen, her ambiguous character being fun to watch. Familiar faces in the cast include Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!), Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man) and Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H).

For Gary Cooper, his performance as Kane saw him claim his second Best Actor Oscar (a decade earlier he won it for Sergeant York) and it was well deserved. Putting aside the thirty-year age gap between him and Grace Kelly, Cooper made Kane came across as a rugged but honourable man, subtly essaying the strain of having the whole town desert him when he is trying to do right by them.

Chances of High Noon converting me into a committed Western movie fan are slim, but as a piece of enduring classic cinema, it can’t be faulted. Suspenseful, subversive and sublime, the legendary status of this film cannot be argued.