High Noon (1952)
“When these hands point straight up…the excitement starts!”
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell
Synopsis: A marshal, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him.
Famously written by Carl Foreman as an allegory for the plight of those unlucky enough to fall under the relentless spotlight of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt in the 1950s, High Noon can also be enjoyed as a tense Western thriller, although to disregard the circumstances under which the screenplay was written will result in an entire dimension of the story being lost. As a young man, Foreman was a member of the Communist party, but he left after becoming disillusioned. This he freely admitted to the House Un-American Committee hearings, but his refusal to name other members working within the movie industry resulted in his being blacklisted while he was writing the script for High Noon. Producer Stanley Kramer reportedly had Foreman removed as a co-producer, and by the time the film was released, Foreman had already decamped to England, knowing he would never find work in Hollywood.
The character of Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper with a strong streak of vulnerability unusual for a Western hero of the time, can be seen as Foreman’s alter-ego. The film opens with Kane’s marriage to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker woman less than half Kane’s age. The wedding is barely over when the town’s Railroad station master (Ted Stanhope) excitedly informs Kane that three men are awaiting the arrival of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a killer Kane put away five years before, and who swore vengeance once he was released from prison.
Initially, Kane follows the advice of the town’s mayor (Thomas Mitchell) and promptly leaves town, much to the relief of his new bride, but he hasn’t got far before his principles get the better of him. ‘I’ve never run before,’ he tells her. He returns to the town, but the reception he receives is not as he expected. The Justice of the Peace (Otto Kruger) is packing his bags, ready to leave. ‘This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere,’ he says. ‘Nothing that happens here is really important.’ His deputy, Harve (Lloyd Bridges), is headstrong and immature, and resents the fact that he was overlooked for the position of Sheriff. He delivers an ultimatum to Kane: he will only help him if Kane arranges for him to take over as Sheriff. Naturally, Kane turns him down.
The majority of the film’s running time centres around Kane’s increasingly desperate attempt to recruit some townsfolk to help him stand up to Miller. Director Fred Zinneman’s repeated cut aways to shots of clocks as noon — the time Miller’s train is due to arrive in town — draws ever nearer, together with Dimitri Tiomkin’s tense score, superbly cranks up the tension as the only offers of help come from the town drunk and a fourteen-year-old kid. The men in the local saloon — the common men, some of whom previously helped Kane put Miller away — aren’t interested; the local politicians are equally reticent to be seen aiding their sheriff in what they consider a doomed and foolish stand, with one of them (Harry Morgan) making his wife pretend he is out of the house when Will knocks on his door for help. And the religious community is so divided that it talks itself into a stalemate. Even Kane’s new wife issues an ultimatum, telling him that he must leave town with him or else their marriage is over.
Kane’s dwindling options as noon draws inexorably closer (the film plays out in near real-time), and his growing trepidation at the imminent arrival of his nemesis, creates a mounting tension that draws its audience in. This tension is strengthened by the fact that, until the final reel, we never actually get to see Frank Miller, we just know he’s getting closer with every passing minute. Kane becomes not only a substitute for writer Cal Foreman, but also for every member of the audience that believes they possess a set of principles to which they would adhere no matter what the odds. Foreman’s tightly plotted script makes it impossible for us not to share Kane’s anxiety. Of course, the truth is a good share of the audience would probably take the side of the townspeople: under extreme stress it’s natural for the human animal to place self-preservation above principles — which is why we always admire characters like Will Kane, who stand their ground despite their fears. Had Cooper played Kane as a fearless hero, High Noon would have been nowhere near as effective as it is.
(Reviewed 27th July 2013)
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