High Noon: Waiting for the Whistle

THE STORY OF A MAN WHO WAS TOO PROUD TO RUN.

highnoon52In a notorious 1971 interview with Playboy, John Wayne talked about how proud he was to have helped make sure a communist like screenwriter Carl Foreman be thrown out of Hollywood. He also elaborated on why he thought High Noon was “the most un-American thing” he ever saw. The main reason is his memory of how Gary Cooper takes his marshal’s badge and steps on it. That’s not accurate, but never mind. Wayne was so upset over how High Noon celebrated the value of collectivism that he went ahead and made Rio Bravo (1959) as an antithesis. At least something good came out of Duke’s rotten politics.

On the day that Hadleyville, New Mexico marshal Will Kane (Cooper) marries his bride Amy (Grace Kelly) and retires, news comes of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). He’s the criminal whom Will once brought to justice in a heroic effort that cleaned up the town. Now Miller’s been released from prison and is heading back to Hadleyville on the noon train. His younger brother and former gang members are waiting for him at the station and there’s no doubt what Miller intends to do; during the trial he swore to get revenge on Will.

The marshal is initially persuaded by his wife and those attending the wedding ceremony to simply leave town; after all, he’s retiring. But Will realizes that he can’t do that; he must face Miller because that’s his duty. Amy angrily tells him that she’s leaving, with or without him, but it doesn’t help. As Will reclaims his badge, he’s startled to find out that no one in town is willing to help him…

Effective as a thriller and allegory
This Western is equally effective as a straightforward thriller and allegory. During its production, Foreman clashed with producer Stanley Kramer who wanted the writer removed because of his refusal to cooperate with congressional communist hunters. In the end, Foreman remained on the production but fled to Britain.

Considering the politics of the era, Will Kane can easily be seen as the kind of hero willing to face the enemy (Senator McCarthy) while the majority choose to remain silent and passive, fearful of losing their jobs and friends. Everyone in Hadleyville seems to have a reason not to help Kane, but in the end it comes down to cowardice. He may have been the man who once made the streets “safe for women”, as one of the characters points out… but it doesn’t seem to be enough to warrant sacrifices. Cooper gives one of his strongest performances as Kane, certainly a hero, but also a human being who is afraid of what is going to happen once the noon train arrives. We can feel the shame that envelops the whole town as Kane tries to rally support. When the showdown finally comes, the marshal finds help at long last from his beloved Amy; Cooper and Kelly make us care deeply for them. Some ingredients in the film are novel for its time. The story plays out in real time, creating real tension that keeps building until it’s almost unbearable in the final twenty minutes.

Cinematographer Floyd Crosby focuses a lot on closeups of sweaty faces, as a symbol of both tension and the guilt laid on the people of Hadleyville, and there’s a wonderful rhythm to how Elmo Williams’s editing and Dimitri Tiomkin’s music score work in tandem. The unforgettable “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” continuously lies there in the background, adding to the angst-filled atmosphere.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton loved this movie, while it was criticized in the Soviet Union for being too individualistic, ironically something John Wayne would have wanted it to be. Everybody reads different things into High Noon. But it still stands as one of the best of its genre.

High Noon 1952-U.S. 84 min. B/W. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay: Carl Foreman. Cinematography: Floyd Crosby. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Song: “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” (Dimitri Tiomkin, Ned Washington). Editing: Elmo Williams. Cast: Gary Cooper (Will Kane), Thomas Mitchell (Jonas Henderson), Lloyd Bridges (Harvey Pell), Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger… Lon Chaney, Jr., Lee Van Cleef.

Trivia: Followed by a TV movie, High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane (1980), and remade as a TV movie, High Noon (2000).

Oscars: Best Actor (Cooper), Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song. Golden Globes: Best Actor (Cooper), Supporting Actress (Jurado), Cinematography, Score. 

Last word: “I’m told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made ‘Rio Bravo’ as a kind of answer to ‘High Noon’, because he didn’t believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people’s help to do his job. I’m rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of ‘High Noon’ takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man’s conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to ‘A Man for All Seasons’. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by ‘High Noon’.” (Zinnemann, “Fred Zinnemann: Interviews”)

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