Judge Daryl Loomis has a showdown at high noon...with a sandwich.
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin', on this our wedding day.
From the beginning of cinema, the western has well served the escapist desires of the movie going public. The early days of masked heroes, singing cowboys, and white hat/black hat dichotomy fit with the serials that entertained kids both on the screen and over the radio. Eventually, however, these boldly drawn lines separating good and right from wrong and evil could not satisfy a more mature audience, and the genre evolved. Featuring more complicated themes and more ambiguity, filmmakers began to use the setting of the untamed west as a mythological canvas where they could paint broad tales of epic scale or more pointed social and political allegories. Often considered the first true "adult" western, High Noon is a pinnacle of achievement in the Western genre, but is it worth this new triple-dip release from Universal?
Facts of the Case
US Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) is calling it quits. Just this morning, he's married the beautiful Quaker, Amy (Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief), and, upon her pacifist insistence, has given up his post for the less violent profession of shopkeep. Just as they're leaving town, word comes in that Frank Miller (Ian McDonald, The Lonesome Trail), a crazed killer whom Kane sent up the river to hang but whose sentence has been commuted, is on his way back to town and will arrive on the noon train. Kane's sense of duty, in spite of the apathy from the townspeople, forces him to return to his post for one last showdown to face his past, even at the expense of his future.
Traditionally, western films focus on the hero over the townspeople and the setting. In this way, High Noon does not deviate from the standard set by three decades of the genre. This is a story strictly about Will Kane but, because Kane is such a different kind of hero from the Lone Ranger archetype, the film feels very different from what had come before it. Gary Cooper, after a lifetime of good work, puts in a career performance (for which he won one of the four Oscars awarded to the film), as the good-hearted Marshal whose friends and fellow townsfolk have betrayed him, forcing him to face a gang of men on his own. One man against many is a pretty common occurrence in the genre, but most examples have the hero turning down offer after offer of help to get the bad guys. Kane, on the other hand, begs for help, pleading with any able-bodied person he can find to pick up a tin star and help him form a posse, but they all step back. Some cower out of fear; some out of spite but, for whatever the reason, Kane has nobody. His sense of duty doesn't change because of his treatment, but his outlook sure does. Cooper, at the time considered far too old for the role, wears all the sadness and frustration on his face. His friends, even his own deputy, condemn him to a likely death at the hands of this madman. Yet, given every chance to leave, he continues on his path, but not out of bravery or even stupidity. He took an oath as a U.S. Marshal and his sense of duty demands he put aside his personal feelings for the greater good.
This may make High Noon sound like a one man Gary Cooper show but, while his is the overwhelmingly dominant presence in the film, the excellent ensemble cast that supports the lead perfectly. None of them has a whole lot of screen time, but each uses what is given to the fullest, not wasting a second. Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) is most enjoyable as the jealous man-child deputy who'll only offer Kane his help on condition that he gets installed as the new Marshal. He is Kane's opposite, valuing self-preservation and his rank over his duty in the role. Grace Kelly is kind of wasted in her debut, sometimes playing the moral voice but often doing very little at all, but her role is weaker than her performance. The rest of the cast, including Lee Van Cleef (For a Few Dollars More) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), are all very strong in their minor roles and help Cooper to execute the extremely tight, economical script.
It isn't just the actors, though, that make High Noon so solid. The tightly wound story is told, essentially, in real time, and these 85 minutes of film are some of the most tense of the era. Not a second is wasted and nothing is done just for the sake of doing it. The tension is surprising, moreover, since there is almost no action until the end of the film. All the suspense is rendered from Fred Zinnemann's fantastic direction and the Academy Award winning editing, which is basically perfect. As we see the clock ticking ever toward noon, we are struck constantly with how desperate Kane's situation is and the shamefulness of the townspeople for sitting by while a madman comes knocking at their doors.
While the film has always been highly regarded, the story behind High Noon is as interesting as the film itself. While critics lauded the film when it was first released, there were many high-level people in Hollywood and in government who saw it as utterly un-American, including director Howard Hawkes and The Duke himself, John Wayne, who together answered with their own film in Rio Bravo. Part of this comes from what could be perceived as a betrayal of the Western tradition, but a lot comes from the very blatant allegory of Hollywood's apathy and compliance toward McCarthy and the HUAC Communist witchhunt. At the time, it got producer and screenwriter Carl Foreman blacklisted, which is hard to imagine now. For all the wind blowing at the time, history has told a different story. This tale of strength and duty when everyone abandons you has appealed to U.S. presidents for decades, becoming the most popular White House film request by far. The original sentiments are completely turned on their ears, as well, as this story can very easily be interpreted as the same situation that our current president found himself in when the United Nations abandoned him over the war in Iraq. While not a value judgment on the film at all, it is a strong sign of the moral ambiguity and complexity of the film.
Lionsgate's release of High Noon is very good in some ways but lazy in others. On this, its third release (and second in six years), the picture finally looks as good as it can. The print is clean and sharp and there are no transfer issues that hurt the last release; it looks great. The sound is equally strong, though in mono there aren't a lot of dynamics. There is also an enhanced sound option, which is a little more dynamic, but overpowering and fairly pointless. The extras are simply a rehash of the original release, however. They are a great group of features, with a commentary from the children of the cast and crew, a number of interesting and informative featurettes, and some really fun Tex Ritter (who sang the famous theme song quoted above) footage; it's just all the same as before. Buy this disc for the beautiful picture, but the extras are nothing new.
I often take issues with films that have been so highly praised for so long and feel like they can't be as good as people claim. High Noon completely lives up to its reputation.
This is one of the best westerns ever made. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary with Maria-Cooper Janis, Jonathon Foreman, Tim Zinnemann, and John Ritter
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