There are a number of film that, deserved or not, have won some sort of immortality by entering pop culture and today’s movie “High Noon” is one of those. It is high noon in Hadleyville and the sheriff is standing alone in the street faving four bandits in a showdown that not all will leave alive. See that is a scene that everybody knows and high noon is, I believe, now more a label of a showdown than a time of the day. Well, at least in my world. I never saw this movie before, but this is where it comes from.
This is a great movie, but this iconic scene is not the reason. In fact that is just the climax of a lead up that is some of the most interesting film making I have seen in a long time.
Let me start by the beginning.
Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the marshal of small town Hadleyville, a nowhere place in the old west. He is getting married to Amy fowler (Grace Kelly) and about to resign his job as marshal when news arrive that Frank Miller will be arriving on the noon train. Frank Miller it turns out used to terrorize the town and Kane made an enemy of him by arresting him. Everybody thought that he would hang, but for some reason he was pardoned and now he is coming back, obviously to settle a score.
Will has quit his job and married a pacifist Quaker, so he leaves town in a hurry, but he has not gone far before he realizes that there is no hiding. Sooner or later he has to face Frank Miller, so better be done with it than live in fear. He returns, picks up his tin badge and figures he will gather a posse and turn him in again, this time for good.
Here is where the movie turns interesting, because Kane is apparently the only one who think that way. We learn that Kane is the reason Hadleyville is safe from bandits yet nobody seem inclined to stand by him.
The first one to abandon him is his newly wedded wife. They are not even married for two hours and she is giving him the choice of her or facing Frank Miller. Will sees this as something that must be done. Frank is a menace and he is coming for him. Frank needs to be stopped and the Marshal is the logical one to do it. Instead of shying away from it Will feels duty bound to face the thread. Amy does not understand that. For her it is much simpler: you do not fight and you do not kill, end. We later learn that both her brother and father were killed in gunfights, so she has some reason to think as she does, but she is singularly unable to see beyond that and is willing to force the issue by walking out on him.
From then on they all flee like rats do a sinking ship. Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is convinced that Will not leaving town is a personal attack and criticism on him and is for that reason sore and unwilling to help. Rarely did I see a person less fit to hold an office. The Judge leave town in a hurry. This piss-pot town is not worth risking your neck for. The former sheriff and a man Kane considered his friend considers it a lost cause and refuses to help. Fuller, another “friend”, pretends he is not home when Kane comes calling at the door. In the saloon they miss the good old times when the town was all party and celebrate Frank Millers return rather than fearing it and the minister is sore that Kane chose not to be married in the church.
But the biggest backstab comes from what I believe is the mayor of the town. At first it seems he is supporting Kane, getting people to remember all the good he has done for the town, but then he turns around and essentially says that a gunfight is bad for business and that if Kane leaves so will Frank Miller.
It is interesting how each of all these people have their own excuse for not facing the menace. Principles, cowardice, jealousy, vengeance or ignorance. This may be a western, but the allegory is unmistakable. When a menace arise what do you do? Do you deal with it and do what needs to be done or do you find excuses to avoid dealing with it? This could be Hitler in 1938, Stalin in 1949 or Korea/China in the early fifties. It could be difficult issues in domestic policies or personal problems. This I think is what this movie does exceptionally well. Even if Kane cannot formulate why he is doing it we know he is right. He could have run a way and it might even have been the smart thing to do, but it would not have been right and it would have solved nothing. We also understand all the excuses for not joining the fight, but even the best of them are flawed. Frank Miller will not just go away and closing your eyes does not protect you, tempting as it is.
But the movie does not stop there. As the clock approaches 12 the tension rises and noon itself is like doom. It is effective and dramatic and it is totally Sergio Leone. No, sir, Leone did not invent the high intensity western, he just perfected it. Zinnemann was there a decade before.
With this gorgeous build up the actual gun fight is almost anticlimactic. It is not bad, but it is also not as intense as it could have been and the reason is likely that this scene has been copied and copied well so many times since that we just know what is coming.
Only one person redeems herself and that is Amy. Principle, schmintciples, she cannot just leave Kane and when in the end he needs her that is more important than a principle. For the rest of the lot Will Kane has only disgust expressed perfectly by throwing his tin badge in the dust. A gesture saying more than a thousand words.
Whether or not you agree with the sentiment expressed by the movie it difficult not to be touched by it. Rarely has this very defining American position been told so eloquently and that I think is the real legend of this movie.
That does not change that the movie has so many other things going for it. Gary Cooper was never better as the stoic but fragile marshal. Grace Kelly in her first role on The List presents her role beautifully, but is almost overshadowed by a very dramatic Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez who is the only other person in town with backbone and a demeanor to match. We have Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr and Lee van Cleef in supporting roles, so yes, I feel spoiled.
And just as icing on the cake “High Noon” boasts one of the best soundtracks of its era. Dimitri Tiomkins theme was recently voted as the 45th best soundtrack ever on Danish National Radio which is very impressive as very few soundtracks on that list were more than forty years old. Personally I cannot get that song out of my head and I hate country and western music…
Another movie that confirms that this is a great and worthwhile project. Definitely top marks from me.