High Noon

(USA - 1952)

by Mike Lorefice, Vanes Naldi & Dan McGowan

Cast: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef
Genre: Western
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on "The Tin Star" by John W. Cunningham
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin
Runtime: 85 minutes

Mike: High Noon is one of the best and also most important westerns since it helped break the traditional formula. It follows in the footsteps of the highly underrated 1950 Henry King western The Gunfighter in focusing on themes and building the tension and suspense. These films don't give us an ultra confident hero who wins a bunch of shootouts during the film. In fact, the films are hardly violent and much better for it. They build the main character to the point you feel like you are in his boots rather than providing some lush settings and predictable battles. They are so engrossing because they are well written and unpredictable to the very end.

The hero of Gunfighter (played brilliantly by a mustache bearing Gregory Peck) is an infamous aging outlaw who is looking to escape the life more than the three angry cowboys on his tail, seeking refuge in the love of his life that he hasn't seen in eight years. The hero of High Noon, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), is on the right side of the law. What High Noon does is totally break down the cliched portrayal of this type of man, our law-upholding hero.

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Kane was the Marshall of the town for many years. He marries Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and, having finished up his duties, begins to leave town. Much to the chagrin and threats of Amy, Will quickly decides he has to return to save the town of ungreatfuls from an evil gunslinger he put away five years ago that was just released from prison. He does it because he feels it's still his duty. It's not something he wants to do, but he's loyal to the town and knows this is the right thing to do. That's really what is so good about Cooper's Oscar winning performance, his world-weariness. He's always the strong silent type, but here he's not looking to be the hero and not afraid to be afraid of what has to be done.

Will tries to protect everyone, but throughout the movie he can't get anyone, even his former deputies, to help him fight the bad guys. There's an occasional exception, but these are only people that shouldn't be fighting and Will won't let them because he'd just be leading them to the slaughter.

This movie shows that human nature is to look out for yourself, but people who practice that are usually only considering themselves at this very moment. If they understood the big picture, they would help Will because the town won't go in reverse if the bad guys are killed, it'll go to hell if they aren't because they'll have free reign to do and take whatever they want.

Dan: It's not that simple. Some of the locals want the town to go to hell, because it's good for business. They resent Cooper and welcome the return of Miller because business (the saloon etc.) was better with plenty of ruffians wasting their money in a lawless town rather than a squeaky clean one. This makes Cooper's sense of honor more admirable as well as luminating his simultaneous hatred of those he must save. It is duty and his innate sense of responsibility that drives him to stay and fight, not his love for the people.

Mike: There are a few other notable stories as well. Amy has to choose between the non-violent beliefs she adopted when her father and brother were killed and her husband who is going to fight whether she's by his side or not. Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) has to decide whether he should put his ego aside and fight with Will one more time or say the hell with him because Will didn't get him promoted to Marshall.

We don't get a great performance from the bad guy here because he's basically faceless. This is a plus though because his legend is so great that even an exceptional tough guy would pale in comparison. Although Grace Kelly became the bigger star and delivered strong performances for Hitchcock in films Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, & To Catch A Theif, in this earlier role she's easily shown up by Katy Jurado. Jurado, a Mexican star in one of her second American film, gives a smoldering performance as Will's tough, edgy, and understanding former lover. Jurado is also impressive in good films like Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks and Carol Reed's Trapeze.

High Noon is a grim tale with one of the greatest bitter endings, but that seems fitting when you consider it came out during the McCarthy era and the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was soon blacklisted.

Vanes: Considered by many to be the best western of all time, High Noon features many elements that would fit in a thriller. There aren't many panoramic landscapes, nor massive shootouts or clashes of egos. Instead it's all about tension, suspense, and time.

The film opens with three outlaws coming to the quiet town of Hadleyville, where Marshall Will Kane is getting married and is ready to leave town to enjoy life with his wife and let a new Marshall take over. Suddenly, the news come that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a man who Kane himself sentenced to death after having caught him, is coming back to town on the 12 o'clock train to settle the score. What follows is a tour de force of masterful direction, cinematography, and acting.

The most amazing thing about this film is that it pretty much reverses any "good ole US western" formula. It's the complete anti-thesis of it. The hero is a proud man, perhaps TOO proud, who like everyone else lives in between fear, courage, love, loyalty, & betrayal. He looks rather weak, and nobody would bet a dime on him surviving the day. The villain is so ingeniously hyped that when we actually see him we can't help but expect more, but that is not a fault of the director or Ian McDonald, it just emphasizes how great the story and the way it's portrayed is.

Dan: It is the fault of the director, or at the very least the real-time format. But really it should be obvious that he could have done more with Frank Miller. You do expect more and it should have been given.

Vanes: For more than 60 minutes, the movie revolves around the tension generated by Frank's incoming arrival. We haven't seen him, so we don't know how bad he really is. There are actually some people in town who wouldn't mind his return because they enjoyed better "commercial" times when he was around. As I said, it's all about tension, and to add to the suspense the film is shot in almost real time. To do so, it focuses on clocks, constantly reminding us of the time. As the climax approaches, the soundtrack gets deeper, the clocks get bigger, and the cinematography puts tremendous emphasis on the moment (the scene when "noon comes" is a masterpiece). There are also constant reminders of the railroad, shots with no train to remind us Frank is coming.

Dan: The cinematography and sets are excellent. The long rising crane shot that shows how alone Cooper is in this town that doesn't deserve his dedication is masterful. Watching Cooper shrink against the long narrow main street as the camera rises higher and higher always blows me away. That shot is simply amazing in capturing the essence of the film in one single shot. It is certainly one of the most memorable shots ever in film.

Vanes: The film also focuses deeply on human nature, about loyalty (Kane's for the town) and betrayal (the people against Kane). We follow Kane trying to recruit deputies to fight Frank and his compadres. Even the bravest men step out when they realize it would be a suicide, and Will is left to fight the evil alone.

The great thing about High Noon is that everything climaxes so perfectly, but in a non-conventional, even if extremely satisfying, manner. It's not about who's the best shooter, who's got the quickest hand in the West. It's not about rivalries; it's not even about good or bad since Frank is more of a big "scare" for Kane. The movie emphasizes this rather than describing past atrocities of the cold-blooded killer. We only know Frank's coming, and that Kane HAS to fight him. Kane is scared of it, and can't help but feel attached to the town. He's loyal up until the end even though the townspeople basically abandon him.

While the direction and cinematography are excellent, the soundtrack by the great Dimitri Tiomkin is one of the simplest but most beautiful ones for a western. The main theme, with lyrics by country star Tex Ritter, is beautiful (I do prefer it played by orchestras though), and expresses in a perfect way Kane's loneliness. There's isn't much else as far as melody or score goes, but instead there's a great emphasis on "supporting" touches. These might not make too much sense if taken out of the film, but add tremendously to the scenes (again, the 12:00 scene is a masterpiece simply because of the interaction between cinematography and soundtrack).

If you watch High Noon looking for a feel good happy ending, you won't be satisfied: There is a happy ending, but not in the conventional way. The final battle, which is the only one in the film (except the fistfight), is treated like a necessary evil. We knew the film would end with it because of the masterfully filmed crescendo, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. Cooper shoots the baddies, wins back his lady, and the town is safe again. It's nothing impressive, but the tremendous suspense generated by the first half is impossible to forget. It's almost like you DON'T want to see the shoot out because the tension is so great; it grabs your throat from beginning to end.

Mike: "Well, after all it ain't no disgrace to be saved by a woman" - Loretta Young in Along Came Jones. The ending actually bears similarity to the 1945 slyly comedic western satire Along Came Jones where Gary Cooper plays a good natured bronc stomper Melody Jones, mistaken for a wanted top gunfighter Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea) largely because they have the same initials (branded on their horse). Young plays a manipulative sharpshooter who uses Cooper as a decoy to protect her boyfriend Jarrad, but eventually sees Cooper is a good guy and Duryea is a creep so she shoots Jarrad dead just before he can kill the tremendously overmatched Jones. These days it's common to have female action heroes. While Grace Kelly isn't a fighter of any type, being the only one to stand by Will and being allowed to save his bacon further helped break down this barrier (women in westerns were either whores or housewives), allowing for Barbara Stanwyck to wear guns in Cattle Queen of Montana and run Tombstone in Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns, as well as opening up TV with a series like Annie Oakley. It's hard to ooze machismo when you are saved by your wife, who "should" instead be home fixing you diner or standing idly by and worrying about your safety, but that fact just furthered the portrayal of Will as a vulnerable hero.

Vanes: Gary Cooper gives a great, great performance. I don't think of anyone who could have fit better; he's so believable and his facial expressions tell so much more than simple dialogue. Certainly a deserved Oscar performance back when the Academy Awards still meant something beyond commercial reasons. Grace Kelly, besides her beauty, gives a strong performance as Cooper's wife, even if it's obviously overshadowed by the main character. Notable is Lee Van Cleef, who played many "sidekick" roles thanks to his mannerisms and facial expressions, and finally came to fame thanks to Leone.

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Dan: Kelly is way overrated in this film. She is simply upstaged by the wonderful Katy Jurado who plays Helen Ramirez, Cooper's old flame. Kelly's character didn't break down any barriers, Jurado's did. Kelly is every bit the traditional love interest. It is Jurado who turns in a tremendous performance as the beautiful yet wise and world-weary woman who understands Cooper and wakes up Kelly to what is going on and what makes Cooper tick. The best scenes in the movie involve the Hispanic Jurado telling Kelly how things operate in the real world and how naive she is being. You just didn't see such strong Mexican women in Westerns and you still don't. To me it is one of the best female performances ever because she really brings the dialogue to life with her passionate delivery.

Vanes: This is a non-conventional western, so much that John Wayne categorized it as "un-American," which is the main strength of the movie. There are no stereotypical heroes or villains, just people trying to settle the score. We don't even see the villain's face is up until the end, but it's the tension between the beginning and that very moment that drives us into the story and keeps us involved for 90 minutes. An amazingly filmed, in a way anti-western. It's not a case that some of the best westerns don't follow the cliched formula, but change the cards and play the game in a different way. Must see, not only for western fans.


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