(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR! I recorded the 1952 best picture nominee, High Noon, off of Retroplex on January 28th. This review is scheduled to posted at 12 noon, central time. Clever, no?)
High Noon is a testament to the power of simplicity.
It’s a famous film, one that continues to be influential and which is still studied today. It’s known for being one of the greatest westerns ever made but it’s also a powerful political allegory. Even people who haven’t seen the film know that High Noon is the moment of the day when someone shows their true character. Just as everyone knows the plot of Star Wars, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the film, everyone knows that High Noon is about a town marshal who, after the entire town deserts him, is forced to face down a gang of gunmen on his own.
And yet, it really is a surprisingly simple movie. It’s the quintessential western, filmed in black-and-white and taking place in the type of frontier town that you would expect to find hiding on the back lot of an old movie studio. Though wonderfully brought to life by a talented cast, the majority of the characters are familiar western archetypes.
There’s the aging town marshal, a simple man of integrity. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the role of Will Kane. When we first see Will, he’s getting married in a frontier courtroom. All of the town leaders have come to his wedding and all of them wish him luck in the future. Will is retiring and everyone agrees that the town would never have survived and prospered if not for Will Kane. After all, Will is the one who captured the notorious outlaw, Frank Miller. When the news comes that Miller has been pardoned and will be arriving back in town on the noon train, everyone tells Will that he should just leave town and go on his honeymoon. However, the new marshal will not be arriving for another day and Will is not willing to abandon the town. However, the town is more than willing to abandon him.
Will’s new wife is Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Amy is a Quaker and a pacifist. Amy begs Kane to leave town but Kane says that he’s never run from a fight. Amy tells him that she’ll be leaving on that noon train, with or without him. Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is the former girlfriend of both Kane and Miller. She is one of the few people in town to call out everyone else’s cowardice but she is still planning to leave before Miller arrives. As she explains it to Amy, she would never abandon Kane if he were her man but he’s not her man anymore.
The townspeople, who first appear to be so friendly and honest, soon prove themselves to be cowards. None of them are willing to stand behind Will. The Mayor (Thomas Mitchell) publicly castigates Will for staying in town and putting everyone else in danger. Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) says that he’ll only help Will if Will recommends him as his replacement. The town minister (Morgan Farley) is more concerned with why Will was married by the justice of the peace, instead of in the church. The town judge (Otto Kruger) leaves early, saying he can be a judge in some other town. One of the few people to show Will any sympathy is the former marshal (Lon Chaney, Jr.) but, unfortunately, he is too old and crippled by arthritis to provide any help.
Though it all, Frank’s gang sits at the train station and waits for Frank to arrive. One gang member is played be Lee Van Cleef. He looks really mean!
With a brisk running time of 84 minutes, High Noon unfolds in real time. Throughout the film, as Kane grows increasingly desperate in his attempt to find anyone brave enough to stand with him, we see clocks in the background of nearly every scene. We hear the ticking. We know that both noon and Frank Miller are getting closer and closer. We know that, soon, Will will have no other option but to stand on the street by himself and defend a town that doesn’t deserve him.
It’s simple but it’s undeniably powerful.
It’s been said that High Noon was meant to be a metaphor for the blacklist. Frank Miller and his gang were the fascists that, having been defeated in World War II, were now coming back to power. Will Kane was a stand-in for all the men and women of integrity who found themselves blacklisted. The townspeople represented the studio execs who refused to challenge the blacklist. That’s the theory and it’s probably true. But, honestly, the political metaphor of High Noon works because it can be applied to any situation. Will Kane is anyone who has ever had to face down the forces of totalitarianism. He is anyone who has ever had the courage to take a lonely stand while everyone else cowered in the corner.
It’s a powerful metaphor and it’s also a genuinely entertaining movie. The gunfight is thrilling. The romance between Will and Amy feels real. Even the town feels like an actual place, one that has its own history and culture. It’s a simple film but it’s a great film.
Like a lot of great films, High Noon was nominated for best picture. And, like a lot of great films, it lost. In High Noon‘s case, it lost to a film that is almost its exact opposite, The Greatest Show on Earth. However, Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as Will Kane.
I think we tend to take classic films for granted. Don’t do that with High Noon. See it the next chance you get.