Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: High Noon (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


(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.

Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Nominee: In Old Arizona (dir by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings)


in-old-arizona-warner-baxter

Since the Oscars are approaching, I thought I would devote February to continuing my never-ending quest to watch and review every single film nominated for best picture!

With that in mind, I recently watched the 1928 film In Old Arizona.  In Old Arizona is a bit of an oddity in Oscar history.  Even though it is considered to have been a best picture nominee, it was never officially nominated.  In fact, in 1929, there were no official nominees.  Instead, the Academy simply announced the names of the winners.  The winners were selected by a small committee of judges.  The committee’s intentions are particularly obvious when you notice that not one film won more than one Oscar in 1929.  At a time when the industry was struggling to make the transition from silent film to the talkies, the 1929 Oscars were all about spreading the wealth and reassuring everyone that they were doing worthwhile work.  In Old Arizona‘s star, Warner Baxter, was named the year’s best actor while Broadway Melody was declared to have been the best picture.

(At that year’s Oscar ceremony, the second in the Academy’s history, the awards were reportedly handed out in 10 minutes and nobody gave an acceptance speech.  If this all seems strange when compared to the annual extravaganza that we all know and love, consider that Louis B. Mayer originally formed the Academy in order to give the studio bosses the upper hand in a labor dispute.  The awards were largely an afterthought.)

Years later, Oscar historians came across the notes of the committee’s meeting.  The notes listed every other film and performer that the committee considered.  Before settling on Broadway Melody, the committee apparently considered In Old Arizona.  For that reason, In Old Arizona is considered to have been nominated for best picture of the year.

If it seems like I’ve spent a bit more time than necessary discussing the history behind the 1929 Oscars, that’s because In Old Arizona isn’t that interesting of a film.  It was a huge box office success in 1929 and it was an undeniable influence on almost every Western that followed but seen today, it’s an extremely creaky film.  Influential or not, there’s not a scene, character, or performance in In Old Arizona that hasn’t been done better by another western.

Based on a story by O. Henry, In Old Arizona tells the story of a bandit named The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter).  Cisco may be an outlaw but he’s also a nice guy who enjoys a good laugh and occasionally sings a song while riding his horse across the Arizona landscape.  (California and Utah stood in for Arizona.)  The Cisco Kid may rob stagecoaches but he always does it with a smile.  Besides, he only needs the money so that he can give gifts to his girlfriend, Tonia (Dorothy Burgess).  What the Cisco Kid doesn’t know is that Tonia is bored and frustrated by his frequent absences and she has been cheating on him.  Then she’s approached by Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), the big dumb lug who has been ordered to bring the Kid in (dead or alive, of course).  Will Tonia betrayed the Kid?

If you’re watching In Old Arizona and hoping to be entertained, you’ll probably be disappointed.  Almost everything about this film has aged terribly.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that none of the actors had quite figured out how to adapt to the sound era and, as such, all of the performances were very theatrical and overdone.  Probably the easiest to take is Edmund Lowe, who at least managed to deliver his lines without screeching.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of Dorothy Burgess.  As for Warner Baxter, he may have won an Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid but that doesn’t make his acting any easier to take.

And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, In Old Arizona is worth watching because it really is a time capsule of the era in which it was made.  In Old Arizona was not only the first Western to ever receive an Oscar.  This was also the first all-talking, all-sound picture.  Watching it today, without that knowledge, you might be tempted to wonder why the film lingers so long over seemingly mundane details, like horses walking down a street, the ticking of a clock, a baby crying, or a church bell ringing.  But, if you know the film’s significance, it’s fun to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone watching In Old Arizona in 1929 and, for the first time, realizing that film could not just a visual medium but one of sound as well.  For some members of that 1929 audience, In Old Arizona was probably the first time they ever heard the sound of a horse galloping across the landscape.

(I have to admit that, as a student of American history, I couldn’t help but get excited when one of the characters mentioned President McKinley.  McKinley may be forgotten today but audiences in 1929 would not only remember McKinley but also his tragic assassination.  By mentioning that McKinley was President, In Old Arizona not only reminded audiences that it was taking in the past but that it was also taking place during what would have been considered a more innocent time.  Much as how later movies would use John F. Kennedy as a nostalgic symbol of a more idealistic time, In Old Arizona uses William McKinley.)

In Old Arizona is no longer a particularly entertaining film but, as a historical artifact, it is absolutely fascinating.