Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado
Seriously, High Noon is often the pinnacle that screenwriters look to when wanting to cut excess from their work. Quite a bit of character drama, intrigue, and action fit into 85 minutes. Also, when asked what their favorite films were, five presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton) picked High Noon. Finally, the American Film Institute places High Noon as the second best Western of all time with the fifth best movie hero.
High Noon is yet another movie that I’d seen clips of in film school (this time in both writing and cinematography classes), but I’d never watched the whole thing.
Quite separately, both of my grandfathers were avid Western fans. They’ve both passed on, but recent conversations about their love of the genre made me want to watch the classics.
Will Kane is the Marshall of Hadleyville, New Mexico. Just a year ago, Hadleyville was a corrupt town at the mercy of Frank Miller. Fortunately, Kane and his posse of deputies captured Miller and sent him up north to be tried. Unfortunately, the jury up north couldn’t convict him, so Miller’s coming on the high noon train back to Hadleyville to kill Kane.
To make matters worse, Kane is newly married to Amy Fowler, a devout pacifist. She suggests leaving, seeing as a new Marshall’s on his way anyhow—though he doesn’t come in till tomorrow, which gives Miller a day of free rein. Kane can’t stomach abandoning the town he helped save, so he tries to round up able-bodied citizens to protect it. Fowler’s not a fan of a Main-Street standoff, so she threatens to annul the marriage. The nail in the coffin comes, however, when many of the town’s citizens refuse Kane’s call to action. They don’t want blood in their streets because businessmen from the North won’t invest in an unstable town.
Where does that leave Kane? During the near “real time” pacing of the movie, the viewers discover just what matters to each citizen of Hadleyville. Kane, meanwhile, finds the odds stacked increasingly against him, leaving him without much more than his morals at his side.
Do not forsake it. This movie was divisive when it was released, but it had its eye on the future. As mentioned above, Eisenhower loved the film, but John Wayne publicly called it “un-American” because of the townsfolk’s gutless actions.
Today, though, many Americans would agree that “doing the right thing” can be daunting. Just this week, whistleblowers from Facebook alleged that the company knowingly targeted and advertised to children as young as six. In a company of nearly 60,000 employees, only two were able to take a stand before congress. This is not an indictment of the employees; Facebook (now Meta) has terrifying influence and reach. This is simply a roundabout way of saying that John Wayne’s assumption that Americans will naturally do the right thing is asinine and cheapens true heroism.
To be more than fair to John Wayne, however, he was likely rankled by the screenwriter of the film, Carl Foreman. Foreman was blacklisted during the 1950s McCarthy witch hunt, and many believe that Foreman used this film as a metaphor for his self-perceived heroism. Seventy years later, however, Foreman’s experience lends authenticity to High Noon and prevents it from becoming preachy. Additionally, current viewers, distanced from the political climate of the 1950s, will find High Noon’s timeless message applicable to the here and now.
Yes, save for one excruciating detail: the blasted theme song! It CONSTANTLY plays in the background, needlessly explains the plot and stakes, and tackily employs cowboy clichés in its instruments (instead of drums, they use horse hooves).
This is a shame too because there’s much to enjoy. Grace Kelly, in one of her first leading roles, puts in a restrained yet firm performance. The subplot, involving Katy Jurado’s shopowner, deals with prejudice and sexism in a shockingly nuanced way for its time. The movie even allows Kane’s character to have some gray areas in his righteousness, then forces him to confront those imperfections. For as serious and lean of a movie as High Noon is, the film even finds time for deft character humor (the gossip-hungry hotel desk clerk is especially a delight). Any ill-conceived musical choices are outweighed by the rewarding drama and craft.