July 3, 2011

#27: High Noon

"O to be torn ‘twixt love and duty!
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty!
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon."

The fact that Fred Zinnemann's 1952 film High Noon is a Western turned me off immediately, but I know that in life and on this blog it's best to keep an open mind. I've made it abundantly clear that there just seems to be too many Westerns on the list, replacing other great movies that have no equal in their genre or scope, but High Noon is actually a little different, even a little anti-Western. Maybe that's why I liked it better than the others.

Company: Stephanie had offered to watch this one with me but I ended up watching it on my own.

Cuisine: pepperoni Digiorno's and a couple glasses of Sun Drop. It was the end of a long weekend.

The story begins with an ending: Will Kane (Oscar winner Gary Cooper) has turned in his sheriff's badge in Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory (it's supposedly not a state yet) in favor of marrying pacifist Quaker Amy (the always stunning Grace Kelly) and moving away to another town to start a quieter life as a storekeeper. The newlyweds learn that Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), a criminal that Kane brought to justice, has been freed on an unspecified technicality and is heading their way, due to arrive in their little hamlet by train at, you guessed it, high noon.

Dilemma! Will Kane stay and defend his town, or will he escape just in the nick of time? His wife would prefer their honeymoon to start immediately, and has her own religious reasons for choosing apathy, but she also has to consider Kane's personal vendetta with Miller, not to mention Miller's vow to kill Kane the next chance he got. The stakes are high... noon. They're on their way out of town when Kane turns their horse-drawn cart back around and vows to face Miller.

Zinnemann finds natural beauty in this desolate terrain and makes us constantly aware of the expanse. When we see the train finally approaching the station, it's approaching out of nothing, reminding us there is nothing else to concern ourselves, and no escape. Above, Miller's cronies approach the train station to await his arrival. Everyone in this small town seems to know the business that Kane and Miller have had, and the fact that it stays unexplained to the audience makes us all the more uneasy.

The town is inhabited by folks of varying levels of loyalty to Kane and to the town. Deputy Sheriff Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is reluctant to help Kane because he'd prefer to take all the glory by bringing Miller to justice himself. Kane's former lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), can do little to help, but grows weary of the cowardice in her town. Even Kane's hour-new wife Amy wants out, and threatens to board the noon train as Miller gets off it. At least they've all got real reasons: most of the men of the town are just too damned wimpy to face Miller, scurrying away at the first sign of danger and leaving Kane alone.

I've read that this is the most requested movie to be screened at the White House, and a favorite of Presidents Truman and Clinton. I can see why the most powerful politician in the world would identify with a movie about facing danger in the name of duty despite total abandonment. John Wayne, however, hated it, but more on that later.

One of the great aspects of the film is that it actually takes place in real time. Running a surprisingly short 84 minutes, Zinnemann continuously brings us back to clocks around town, reminding us of Miller's inevitable arrival and how little time the town has been given to prepare for war. This maybe doesn't seem like such a big deal to modern audiences -- this technique is used a lot more these days, notably in Run Lola Run, United 93 and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu -- but when you think about all the time that goes into editing a film, the fact that it times out just right is quite an achievement.

"It's all for nothing, Will."

Let's all remember, too, that honor is just about the greatest thing a man in this town can have. When Kane enters a bar and hears the bartender talking shit about him, that he won't face Miller and abandon the town, Kane comes over and without a word slugs him... and no one even bats an eye. Respect is what a man breeds, and as a respected sheriff of the town, Kane has cultivated a certain celebrity that seems to backfire when in the threat of danger he is abandoned at every turn. The general apathy of the townspeople of Hadleyville was seen by some in Hollywood as an allegory for the Red Scare and those too afraid to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even the film's screenwriter, Carl Foreman (basing his screenplay off a short story by John Cunningham called "The Tin Star"), was brought before the HUAC, based on his previous affiliations with the Communist party, and was labelled an "uncooperative witness." Soviets at the time claimed the film advocated "glorification of the individual," but the film has gained respect since the fall of communism. I love it when a movie on this list is so closely tied to a corresponding story in our country's history.

Unspecified bad guys.

Here lies the difference between High Noon and most of the other Westerns on the list. Yes, there's a sheriff who hopes to save the day. There's a damsel in distress. There's a bad guy followed closely by cronies. But there's very little action, and more, a whole lot of inaction. The film plays very still and sure of itself, where other Westerns seem to prove themselves through shoot-em-up sequences and melodramatic romance. It's the glorification of the Old West and the morality of this genre that bugs me the most, but High Noon seems to be a reaction against these archetypes. Most of the dialogue throughout the film has characters examining and questioning their own morality, if not downright ignoring virtue and loyalty. It certainly doesn't paint a very pretty picture of society, which is probably a big part of why it's so divisive.

I even sort of thought that Gary Cooper was wooden, and too old for the character, but it seems as though his Oscar was maybe more retrospective than anything, and honoring a film that probably should have won Best Picture over The Greatest Show on Earth that year. But since when has Oscar ever gotten much right? Anyway, the acting is not what's on display here. It's Zinnemann's gentle hand, guiding us through one man's simple dilemma.

The ending sequence packs a punch, partially because it's well-staged but more because we've been anticipating it so feverishly for 80 minutes. Watch for Amy's involvement in the last scene, which I think is a fascinating character twist for her. In the end, Kane drops his tin star once and for all, takes Amy back into the carriage and rides off. "Riding off" is certainly a part of Western archetype, but never for me has it felt so right and so well-deserved as Will Kane's final ride.

It's not a perfect film, but it does raise great questions and makes for an interesting discussion, which is more than I can say for most others of its genre on the list. Thank god it didn't blend together like all the others did or I might have given up on this breed of film altogether. Thanks, Mr. Zinnemann.

Next up: let's go with Mr. Smith to Washington.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I felt very much the same as you - by "classic western" standards this is very thought provoking. I do think modern westerns have come a long way though - movies since Unforgiven have more in common with High Noon than the silly old cowboy movies of the early years.