Blog Directory CineVerse: It's high time we take a closer look at High Noon

It's high time we take a closer look at High Noon

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Cinematic westerns don't have to be action-packed affairs brimming with violence to resonate with audiences. Case in point: High Noon, which this year marks a 70th anniversary. Our CineVerse group recently took a deep focus lens to this picture and analyzed its many facets, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to hear the most recent Cineversary podcast episode celebrating this movie, click here).

Why is this movie worth celebrating 70 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • High Noon is one of the very finest and most commercially successful, acclaimed, and award-honored westerns ever made.
    • It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, eventually winning for best actor, earned by Gary Cooper, best song (as represented by Do not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’, which also became a popular musical hit), best film score, and best film editing. Consider that, in motion picture history, very few westerns have ever been nominated, let alone won Academy Awards. High Noon was also among the top-grossing movies of 1952.
    • It places #27 in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, ranking as the second greatest western ever, on that list, among six westerns that made the cut. On a separate list of the 10 greatest westerns of all time, High Noon came in just behind The Searchers.
  • This is also likely the most controversial western ever, at least up to that point. That’s because it sparked a lot of debate after its release due to its political undertones and questioning themes, particularly considering that 1952 was the height of the red scare era, a time when witch hunts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (also called HUAC) were conducted with the goal of outing communists in Hollywood. 
    • High Noon’s story can be interpreted as an allegory for the Hollywood community, like the town of Hadleyville, turning its back on a brave but reluctant hero who is threatened by a malevolent force eager to destroy him – much as HUAC and McCarthy were successful in destroying the careers of those in Hollywood who would not name names and denounce their communist ties.
    • Several people involved with the production, including screenwriter Carl Foreman, actor Lloyd Bridges, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Foreman was soon blacklisted after composing the script.
  • High Noon still matters because of the evident artistry on display. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, director Fred Zinnemann, producer Stanley Kramer, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, and editors Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad distinguish themselves here as fine craftsmen whose talents stand out, producing a work of lasting brilliance despite a measly $750,000 budget. 
    • The film’s simple but effective monochromatic compositions, clever cutting and montaging, effective pacing, recurrent musical theme, and memorable performances coalesce to create a highly effective, gripping, and emotionally potent morality tale in the guise of a western.
    • Several ingenious compositions stand out, especially those involving moving camera shots. Examples include shots framed from one side of a storefront window that reveals parallel planes of action on each side of the glass; shots of the Miller gang riding past the storefronts; an effective image of a spinning wagon wheel in the foreground and the passing town in the background; and the unforgettable crane shot that pulls away from Kane standing solitary in the empty center of town, revealing his utter isolation and implied powerlessness amidst a vast humanless landscape.
  • High Noon has also stood the test of time thanks to its evergreen thematic elements. Sure, the frontier town milieu is antiquated. Still, the essential messages at work – themes of betrayal versus loyalty, alienation versus inclusion, bravery versus cowardice, and duty and honor versus self-preservation – continue to resonate. This is a story that can transcend any genre; give it a science fiction setting, for example, and it could still work beautifully.
  • The thespians picked to play these parts are exceptional. What a deep bench—from Thomas Mitchel and Lloyd Bridges to Lon Chaney Jr. and Katy Jurado to Harry Morgan and Otto Kruger. Even the smallest roles are well cast.

How was High Noon innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood westerns?

  • There’s minimal action until the last several minutes. Most westerns seek to entertain audiences with more physical conflict in the form of gunfights, fistfights, horseback chases, and more violence that is spread throughout a movie’s runtime.
  • The climactic gunfight is not exaggeratedly extended or stylistically depicted; we aren’t shown, for instance, multiple angles, slow motion, or protracted exchanges of gunfire. Instead, it’s quick, dirty, and realistic – one villain is shot in the back, and Miller tries to take Ann hostage. Kane doesn’t demonstrate any derring-do or do anything particularly heroic, although he shows cleverness when he escapes from the burning barn on horseback.
  • The story is told and shown virtually in real-time, depicting roughly 105 minutes of diegetic action within an 85-minute movie.
  • Most westerns are morally transparent: you clearly know the good guys from the baddies. In High Noon, there are a lot of grey areas concerning loyalties, duty, and rightness and wrongness; some townspeople prefer Miller’s lawless ways, others are doubtful of Kane’s motives, and others are indecisive. Are the villagers bad or wrong for not having Kane’s back? Each has their reasons and can rationalize their decision not to get involved. Is Kane foolish and reckless for not leaving town, possibly putting other people’s lives in danger? By the conclusion, it’s easy to deduce that Kane was in the right and made the correct choice to stay and fight, but we have to ask ourselves what we would do if we were one of those citizens in that situation.
  • The protagonist is stoic and heroic, but he’s also realistic, honest, and flawed: He admits to being frightened and abandons his lawman duties at the end. That's why his victory feels hollow at the end—Kane gives up the badge and rides off in bitterness and disgust.
  • Curiously, the antagonist, Miller, is not shown until the very end, although his expected arrival is given great importance by the characters. When he steps off the train, we aren’t even shown his face until a few moments later – a face that isn’t necessarily shocking or intimidating. The Miller reveal is rather anticlimactic when you ponder how much significance his impending arrival was given.
  • High Noon is not so much a traditional western as a parable or morality play depicting a social problem that transcends any genre.
  • Most westerns at this time were being filmed in color and were lavished with bigger budgets. This is a low-budget black-and-white affair, which described many poverty row oaters of this era; but unlike shoestring budget productions by lesser studios, High Noon could boast of top talents in front of and behind the camera. The filmmakers aimed for a documentary-like visual aesthetic and realism by choosing black-and-white minus the glossy production values.
  • This was the first major instance of a popular ballad theme song in a western, which was much copied thereafter in other films.
  • Despite these differences from previous pictures in the genre, High Noon employees many of the motifs, clichés, and patterns one would expect from a western, including a showdown climax that takes place on the streets of a deserted town; good characters vs. evil characters; a love story involving a pretty woman – in this case, two attractive and strong females; one or more scenes in a saloon filled with rough-and-tough customers; and the casting of great character actors and western movie faces we’ve come to expect and love, including Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Sheb Wooley, and Ian McDonald.

How was High Noon influential on cinema or popular culture?

  • Before High Noon, few dramatic films featured songs sung with lyrics; after High Noon, many did—especially westerns. Interestingly, the theme song prophesizes what is going to happen— the lyrics give hints as to Kane’s struggles to come as the story advances.
  • High Noon demonstrated the effectiveness of using time as a source of dramatic conflict; the frequent medium and close-up shots of clock faces percolate the suspense and continually remind the viewer of Kane’s seemingly doomed status. This movie sets the visual template for a deadline-driven story in which temporal matters are crucial to the characters and the plot.
  • This movie proved that strong female characters with greater agency made for a better story and enhanced the dramatic conflict. High Noon is blessed with two powerful woman characters: Amy, a female with strong religious convictions who refuses to acquiesce and be subservient to her husband; and Helen Ramirez, who runs her own business and proves to be a strong-willed, independent thinker who is fearless in the face of intimidating men. She inspires Amy to have her husband’s back. In fact, Amy plays a crucial role in saving Kane by killing one bad guy outright and tussling with Miller, which gives her husband the upper hand in that showdown. Essentially, instead of the male hero rescuing a damsel in distress, here we have a female hero rescuing a male in distress.
  • The prominent facial close-ups in High Noon may have encouraged later filmmakers to employ this tight facial framing, especially Sergio Leone in his spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  • Several movies and television shows were arguably inspired by High Noon, including Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West (particularly its extended opening sequence at the train depot), Forty Guns, Rio Bravo, and the TV series Gunsmoke. The films Outland and Three O’Clock High were also influenced by High Noon, and there was a 2000 TV remake of the same name.
  • High Noon is credited as the first Hollywood Western to feature a Mexican actress in a significant role – in this case, Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez.
  • This picture also catapulted Grace Kelly’s brief but memorable acting career.

Why is Gary Cooper the right actor to play Marshall Will Kane? 

  • Cooper brings to the role the multiple morally righteous and virtuous characters we’ve seen him play in so many previous films, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to A Farewell to Arms to Sergeant York to The Pride of the Yankees. It’s easy to root for him based on his likable visage and earnest eyes alone.
  • As Kane, Cooper looks pained and aged – thanks in no small part to the fact that the actor was suffering from stomach ulcers, nagging hip discomfort, lower back pain, and a recent romantic breakup. His hangdog expressions, world-weary countenance, and quiet demeanor lend pathos to this personality, making it easy for us to feel the weight on his shoulders. We see the doubts behind his eyes and the strained sense of honor and compromised dignity.
  • He’s not an invulnerable force like a John Wayne protagonist or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name. Kane is utterly human and vulnerable, capable of forgetting his place as a lawman by punching the bartender in the saloon and shedding tears of fear in private as the clock strikes down. He’s also not very persuasive or vocally insistent, despite the extreme danger he faces.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in High Noon?

  • Betrayal and disloyalty. Despite protecting his fellow villagers for many years and making the streets safer for women and children, Kane is abandoned by his community at his greatest time of need.
  • Civic duty and responsibility. It’s been said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Instead of banding together and showing solidarity behind Kane, the community deserts him and shirks their obligations as responsible and engaged citizens.
    • Recall Martin’s notable remarks to Kane: “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.”
  • The dangers of moral corruption. Hadleyville has been carefully nurtured over the years to become an upstanding and safe place to raise families and engage in free enterprise. But the health and integrity of this community are only as robust as its moral core—the extent to which its citizens are willing to abide by law, order, decency, and virtue. Once they permit bad influences like Miller’s crowd to creep in, the town risks rotting from the inside out.
    • Kane resists this temptation toward moral corruption. DVD Journal reviewer Gregory Dorr wrote: “Kane has come to represent a sadly antiquated model of American man: an individualist bound by selfless and unyielding commitment to law and protecting those in his dominion; a man resistant to corrosive neuroses and unthwarted by moral relativism. As a result, Kane has become an icon for those who have not been roped into the post-sexual-revolution era of the “sensitive male” — from politicians, to columnists, to the fictional Mafiosi of HBO’s The Sopranos.”
    • Being forced to make difficult choices.
    • Kane is compelled to choose between courage, duty, and honor or self-preservation and cowardice.
    • Amy must decide whether to abide by her pacifist religious beliefs or stand by and protect her man.
    • Deputy Harvey Pell must choose between ego and friendship.
    • Kane’s friends—from the judge to Martin (the retired marshall) to Sam Fuller to Mayor Jonas to Herb—also have to decide whether to back Kane or not; each, in turn, forsakes him.

High Noon has often been called a liberal or progressive Western, one that was vilified in its day by conservatives like John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who labeled this film as anti-American and collaborated on 1959’s Rio Bravo as a sort of staunch rebuttal. But some argue that High Noon actually straddles the fence between being a liberal statement and a conservative one.  How can the film be interpreted politically today?

  • At the time of its production, the McCarthy witch hunts were going on when many Hollywood players were forced to name names of communist sympathizers—many of those persecuted made the brave choice to fight the persecution and stand ground.
    • Kane is betrayed and deserted by townspeople he thought were friends, just like many who were implicated, alienated, and blacklisted by confidants during the HUAC proceedings.
    • Screenwriter Carl Foreman said in an interview: “(Hollywood was) a community beginning to crumble around the edges as these high powered politicians came in ... putting this community through an inquisition that was getting more and more painful for a lot of people, and people were falling to the wayside one way or another. They were either capitulating to these gangsters – political gangsters from out of town – or they were being executed by them here. And I could see that my time was coming sooner or later – it was just being delayed by a couple years or so – and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about the death of Hollywood.”
  • High Noon is also seen as an allegory of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy during the Korean War, where America went it alone against communist North Korea.
  • DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “High Noon is actually a better fit as a conservative fantasy about America fighting Communism in foreign wars. Good ol’ Kane ([like] General MacArthur and company) defeated Evil foes five years ago (roughly the end of WW2), but now Evil is back and it’s personal. Nobody gives a damn, or worse, they’re on the side of the Commies. Kane must go it alone. Poor General MacArthur, stabbed in the back by the politicians. The pacifist argument in High Noon takes a conservative turn as well. Amy Fowler is a pacifist Quaker, yet has married a man whose profession involves gunplay and killing. When Amy blasts bad guy Robert J. Wilke in the back, the movie crudely suggests that Christian pacifism is a myth promoted by people who have never had to fight to protect their loved ones. Amy earns the right to keep her man the American Way, by killing for it.”
  • High Noon was actually employed in a Solidarity poster in Poland in 1979, which indicates that the film means different things for different people at different times.

What is High Noon’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Possibly its greatest gift is its tense tonality and suspenseful pacing. The genius of this picture is its faithful adherence to temporal realism: telling the story in approximately real time and continually reminding us of the approaching deadline by using insert shots of different clocks ticking down the minutes and seconds to zero hour, aka high noon. It’s not just the clock face closeups that matter—it’s also the nervous glancing at said timepieces by Kane and other characters, their expressions instantly conveying an anxious cognizance of the increasing hopelessness and desperation of the situation.
  • The filmmakers also cunningly generate apprehension in the audience by simple suggestion of forthcoming violence. Quotes like “You know there'll be trouble,” “He was always wild and kind of crazy. He'll probably make trouble,” “Nobody wants to see you get killed,” “Plenty of people feel he’s got a comeuppance coming,” and especially “Have you forgotten what he is? Have you forgotten what he's done to people? Have you forgotten that he's crazy? Don't you remember when he sat in that chair and said, 'You'll never hang me. I'll come back. I'll kill you, Will Kane. I swear it, I'll kill you.’” Foreshadowing sequences further tighten the knot, such as the barber commissioning more coffins and kids engaging in a tug-of-war and playacting a street shootout in which one child says “bang bang, you’re dead, Kane!”
  • But the film’s pressure-building pièce de resistance is the wordless two-minute montage sequence that ticks down the final minutes before noon, in which Kane composes his last will and testament, we revisit the expectant faces of nearly every character previously shown in the film within the environments we last saw them in, and we are shown the tracks that will bring Miller’s train into the depot at any moment, a merciless metal pathway to perdition. Every shot is rhythmically timed to span exactly four beats of the film’s main theme that thrums hauntingly and increasingly louder. Each successive shot is framed as a tighter closeup, and the music builds to an emotional crescendo, halting suddenly as we hear the sound of the train whistle–at which point we get four rapid-fire cuts of Ann, Kane, Helen, and the Miller gang. This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its very best, pure cinema that uses simple but strong visuals, stirring music, and precision editing to tell a riveting story within the story with no dialogue needed.

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