on 22 March 2014
Olive Film's 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of High Noon (1952) presents this critically lauded, still controversial western masterpiece in a Hi-Def transfer that renders all other home video versions obsolete.
The Stanley Kramer production, tightly directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman, earned the hatred of 1950s McCarthyists, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who were so outraged they made Rio Bravo (1959) as a right-wing response. Wayne went further than that, teaming up with Hollywood Gossip mogul Hedda Hopper and the House Un-American Activities Committee to run Foreman out of the country. Foreman moved to England and never returned. Wayne forever boasted of forcing the writer into exile. Kramer, responding to accusations that High Noon was anti-American, tried to get Foreman's name taken off the credits. Gary Cooper intervened on Foreman's behalf, making Kramer's effort unsuccessful, but Kramer had better luck forcing Foreman to sell his part of their company. So much for loyalty under pressure: ironic, given the film's theme of civic morality.
The biggest offense of the film, for Wayne and his fellow extremist kooks, was the final shot of Will Kane supposedly dropping his marshal's badge in the dust and stomping on it. Wayne saw symbolism aplenty, but his faulty vision was filtered through a lens of Cold War paranoia and exaggeration. Will Kane merely dropped the badge. He never stepped on it. The other offense was the portrayal of the townspeople as a greedy, self-cannibalizing lot, a hypocritical church community who argue their way out of communal (and personal) loyalty. Wayne and Hawks' Rio Bravo depicted, in sharp contrast, a town full of old-fashioned buddy-buddy camaraderie. If Wayne and Hawks were alive today they might have rethought their depiction, because High Noon could served as an apt snapshot of contemporary division. It's a good thing that actor/director team didn't live to see the 21st century, though, because despite the intent behind Rio Bravo, and despite its occasional tendency towards sentimental phoniness, it remains, along with High Noon, one of the standout westerns in the genre's greatest decade.
One cannot approach High Noon without addressing its political themes, both within the film's text and those raised in its aftermath. Along with writer Formean, co-star Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby were also awarded with temporary blacklists until the FBI cleared them of Communist affiliations. The fifty-one year old Gary Cooper was engaged in an affair with his twenty-three year old co-star Grace Kelly (putting an end to Coop's affair with Patricia Neal.) Kelly's fling with the long established Republican protected her from McCarthyism's scrutiny. Cooper was friendly with the HUAC, and testified before them (without ever naming names), but he only did what was expected of him, then returned to his top priority of resuming his romance with a future princess.
Cooper was in Europe by the time the Academy Awards Ceremony rolled around and asked Wayne to accept the award of Best Actor on his behalf, should he happen to win. Of course, he did, and the Duke did a prompt, public about-face in his acceptance speech: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm glad to see they're giving this to a man who is not only most deserving, but has conducted himself throughout the years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of. Coop and I have been friends hunting and fishing for more years than I like to remember. He's one of the nicest fellows I know. And our kinship goes further than that friendship because we both fell off horses in pictures together. Now that I'm through being such a good sport about all this sportsmanship, I'm going back and find my business manager, agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out why I didn't get High Noon instead of Cooper."
The speech renders Wayne a hypocrite, since seeing potential red from the outset, it was he who first refused the role of Marshal Will Kane, thus paving the path for Gary Cooper in the part. Yet, despite Wayne's standing as a precursor of Rush Limbaugh's pharisaical aggression, he can, perhaps, best be summed up in an assessment I was privy to in a screening of Red River (1948). The host, an erudite writer, had this to say about Wayne: "I met the Duke's son Patrick. Unlike his dad, Patrick is a thorough gentleman; pleasant and courteous. Unfortunately, he also differs from his dad when it comes to acting because Patrick's a lousy actor. His dad was a great actor and that's not really up for argument."
However, as skilled an actor as he was, Wayne as Will Kane would have been a loose right-wing cannon. Gary Cooper's brand of authentic conservatism merged seamlessly with his marshal. Cooper's laconic, weathered portrayal of internalized integrity shines through Zinnemann's opulent artistry.
Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower were among the film's fans. Reagan saw positive American values in the theme of an individual placing the safety of his peers above his own personal interests. When I first saw the film in my youth, prior to readings of political allegories, my interpretation of the film paralleled Reagan's.
If Wayne has come to embody our idea of the snarling, mythological Westerner, Gary Cooper is our moderate, amorous Rino cowpoke. We readily accept his pairing with Grace Kelly's Quaker Amy Fowler (the "darling Clementine" of the film's theme song). Amy is a model of another form of extremism. Amy's tragic past has rendered her a pacifist with a checklist, adhering to each dogmatic bullet point. Will cannot violate his conscience to succumb to any extreme ideology. We genuinely root for their reconciliation. Oddly, it is in its climax that we find High Noon is, in fact, a paradigm for conservative mythology. Once faced with physical threat, Amy's militant pacifism is, in fact, submitted as a futile, theoretical interpretation of Christian tenets. The townspeople, led by Mitchell, have their own ideological creeds, dictated primarily by the potential capital gains Frank Miller and his gang bring by their return to Hadleyville.
Katy Jurado's Helen Ramirez is the literary female counterpart to Kelly's pure Virgin Mary. Helen, the tainted Magdalene, is, of course, a necessary contrast, and she steals every scene she is in, despite Zinnemann's efforts to highlight Kelly. Not unexpectedly, there was rivalry between the two actresses on set. Lon Chaney, Jr. shines in his role as the arthritic former lawman and Kane mentor, Martin Howe. Chaney acts with such effective pathos that one wished producers had realized his greater potential as a character actor, rather than as a B grade horror star. Lloyd Bridges' portrayal of self-serving deputy Harvey Pell is less effective, occasionally stiff in line readings, and a noticeable case of miscasting. Lee van Cleef, debuting here, was originally cast in the role of Pell, but he would not surgically alter his nose, which producers thought "too villainous looking." Instead, Cleef was relegated to playing one of the thugs, setting him on the path to a wonderfully typecast career.
Editor Elmo Williams' work here is exemplary and, with much ballyhoo, he cut the film to play out in real time. Dmitri Tiomkin's score is perfectly synchronized, and Tex Ritter's theme song, which sold over a million copies, is so iconic that every singer tackling it since then has rendered a pale imitation.
Zinnemann and Crosby intentionally shot High Noon in stark black and white. Zinnemann valiantly fought to keep media mogul Ted Turner's filthy colorizing hands off the film. Alas, Zinnemann lost and Turner, with Republic Pictures, produced an asinine colorized version for television. Therein lies the difference between celluloid and the corporal world. In the latter, sometimes the bad guys win.
*Due to John Wayne's interpretation of this scene, he and fellow right wing extremist Ward Bond bullied Gary Cooper into backing out of a planned independent production company with Forman and producer Robert Lippert. [↩]
*The American Film Institute lists High Noon second in its list of top ten westerns. First is John Ford's The Searchers (1956) with Wayne. Two other films starring Wayne made the list: Red River at number five and Ford's Stagecoach (1939) at number nine. [↩]
*The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was as hypocritical as Wayne, awarding the Best Picture Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille's dreadful The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), in order to appease Joseph McCarthy and the right-wing campaign launched against High Noon. This snub is, justifiably, seen as one of the many examples of the Academy's irrelevancy. [↩]
*Gregory Peck was next offered the role after Wayne refused it. Peck also declined the part, feeling it too closely resembled The Gunfighter (1950), which he had just made. Peck later counted the decision as his biggest career mistake. However, Peck, ever the gentleman, admitted he could not have played the part as well as Cooper. Charlton Heston, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Kirk Douglas were also offered the role and declined it. [↩]
*Zinnemann and makeup artist Gustaf Norin gave Cooper no makeup in order accentuate the actor's inherent sense of anguish. [↩]
** my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies
...'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' is (for me) probably nowhere better exemplified than in this 1952 Western masterpiece directed by Fred Zinnemann. Strangely enough, High Noon's legendary theme song, Dimitri Tiomkin's 'The Ballad of High Noon' (better known for its famous lyric, 'Do not forsake me, oh my darling') creates a rather misleadingly light tone as the film begins with Lee Van Cleef's Jack Colby casually smoking atop a rocky outcrop. The (aural and visual) mood soon changes, though, as Colby meets up with fellow gang members Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke) and Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), and they stride into Hadleyville, prompting a local Latino woman to cross herself in pursuit of divine protection.
Zinnemann's tale (with a screenplay by Carl Foreman ) of newly married Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) fighting his personal demons in order to see off (for one last time) recently pardoned murderer Frank Miller (plus his 3 cohorts) following Frank's arrival on the noon train is the stuff of cinematic legend. For me, what accentuates High Noon's brilliance is Zinnemann's cinematic device of having the film's passage of time mirrored by the viewer's, this heightened sense of tension (over the 90 or so minutes through to noon) being fostered by continuing shots of clocks, swinging pendulum and Tiomkin's musical 'ticking clock' motif. Similarly, the director's use of the said 90 minutes to allow Kane to fill in his character's back-story by renewing acquaintances across town during his (unsuccessful) attempts to round up a posse, in advance of Miller's arrival, is also a clever touch. The scenes in both the town saloon and the church are, for me, particular highlights - the latter's focus on the local populace's ambivalence about 'getting involved' reminding us of the US' similar reticence during WW2.
Acting-wise, Zinnemann's cast is pretty much flawless. Cooper is, of course, the epitome of the self-respecting, upstanding persona inhabiting the moral high-ground as Kane ('I've never run from anybody before'), and does an impressive job, although I did also wonder what Henry Fonda might have made of this role. As Kane's pacifist, Quaker wife Amy, Grace Kelly just about carries it (in an early big screen role for her), whilst Katy Jurado brings a suitable degree of Mexican glamour as Kane (and Miller Snr.'s) ex, Helen Ramirez. But, for me at least, it is in the supporting (sometimes cameo) roles where High Noon particularly scores. Lloyd Bridges is impressively 'wimpy' as the immature, young, and grudge-bearing upstart Harvey Pell, who has ambitions beyond his station to succeed Kane as Marshall, whilst each of (the great) Otto Kruger as fleeing judge Percy Mettrick and Lon Chaney as the sage, and incapacitated, confident to Kane, Martin Howe are excellent. Similarly, each of the 'baddies' (van Cleef, Wilke, Wooley and Ian MacDonald as Frank) are appropriately swarthy and malevolent - the three awaiting Miller Snr. at the railroad station providing a nice comparator with Sergio Leone's magnificent opening scene from Once Upon A Time In The West.
The film's ending? Well, at heart, High Noon is a 'conventional' Western, so we know what we're going to get, and Zinnemann provides a suitably dramatic shootout - preceding which is another great moment, as DoP Floyd Crosby's slowly retreating crane shot of Kane reveals him standing alone in the town's desolate streets.
For me, High Noon is right up there with the likes of Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Gunfight At The OK Corral, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, and (perhaps more unconventionally), Once Upon A Time In The West, Ulzana's Raid and Ride The High Country as one of my favourite films of the genre.
Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is a retiring lawman all set to leave the town of Hadleyville with his new bride Amy (Grace Kelly). But word comes that a notorious gunslinger he put in prison has been released and is heading to town with his gang intent on bloody revenge. With a sense of fearless duty Kane decides to stay and sets about enlisting a posse, however, he finds that nobody in the town that he made safe for everyone will aid him in his mission.
The 1950s saw a big shift in styles for the American Western. After the yee-haw Cowboy Vs Indians excess of the 40s, the decade was ushered in by such film's as Broken Arrow. Showing the Indians in a sympathetic light, Broken Arrow also showed that clearly Westerns had much more to offer than frothy shoot them up entertainment. Which brings us to High Noon, a black and white Oater that landed in 1952 and is still today revered as a quintessential classic Western. Which is not bad considering there's no gun-play here until the last five minutes of its 85 minute running time.
What makes High Noon so significant is that it's not a big movie in terms of production. There's no reams of extras dashing around in glorious Technicolor, no sprawling vistas inhabited by colourful characters, this is pretty understated stuff. Yet thematically it's as big as it gets, a lesson in character drama where not a frame is wasted. From it's unforgettable opening of three bad men (Lee Van Cleef, Robert Wilkie, Sheb Wooley) waiting at the station while Tex Ritter's ballad explains the plot, to the now legendary and iconic ending, High Noon simmers with suspense and intensity as the story unravels. All told in real time too.
Based on a short story called The Tin Star written by John W. Cunningham, High Noon is directed metronomically by Fred Zinnermann and is shot in high contrast by cinematographer Floyd Crosby. Thus the film has a documentary feel to it, giving it an authentic edge so rarely seen in the Western genre. The piece is further boosted by the performance of Cooper. Winning the Oscar for best male performance, Cooper was 50 years old and into his third decade as a movie star. His prancing around in Western days reducing by the month, yet High Noon shows it to be one of the finest casting decisions made in the 50s. In agony from a back injury and other ailments during the shoot, Cooper carries the movie with brilliant sincerity, conveying the pain of a man now alone as he trundles towards doom. The realisation is that all his heroism and graft that made Hadleyville a safe place for women and children to live, now counts for nothing, it's a heavy weight on Kane's shoulders. It's here where Cooper excels, there's no histrionics or drawn out speeches, it's thru expressions and body movements that the story gains its emotional momentum. A remarkable turn from a remarkable actor, proof positive that you didn't need a dashing leading man to propel your movie.
The film notoriously angered Howard Hawks & John Wayne, its themes and its perceived allegory for blacklisting a bone of contention that led to them making Rio Bravo as a riposte in 1959. There's many an essay on High Noon and its links to Senator Joe McCarthy, HUAC etc etc, so really I have no interest in going there. Instead I think it's just fitting to say that Zinnermann himself always resisted talking in terms of allegorical interpretations for his film. He, rightly so, felt to do that would be unfair and dampen the huge significance of his wonderful movie.
Amen to that. 10/10