HIGH NOON (1952)

  • Director: Fred Zinnemann
  • Writers: Carl Foreman, based on the short story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham
  • Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Jr, Harry Morgan, and Ian MacDonald
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#27), 4 Oscars (Best Actor – Gary Cooper, Best Original Song – “The Ballad of High Noon,” Best Original Score, Best Film Editing), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Fred Zinnemann, Best Adapted Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I have always loved science fiction and fantasy of various stripes, and one of the main reasons is the way they can talk about important stuff that applies to all our lives without being, you know, too on the nose about it. I’m far less likely to watch a straight moral polemic than I am to watch a moral polemic in space. One thing I’ve discovered recently is that westerns aren’t really all that different, at least in that very specific way. When they work for me is when they fully lean into that side of things and stop worrying about… whatever it is they usually worry about. Cowboys? I dunno.

High Noon has a one-on-one showdown of a climax that was imitated by literally thousands of other things, but the reason it has endured as a movie over the years (and has been cited as a favorite movie by both Democratic and Republican presidents) is because it tells a universal story, of one man standing up for his principals when everyone else in society tells him that he shouldn’t, and being proved right in the end. Its writer, Carl Foreman, basically wrote it in the time between figuring out he was going to be Blacklisted for supposed Communist sympathies and actually being Blacklisted, and many at the time and now see the whole thing as a sort of metaphor for the Red Scare. Meanwhile, the director, Fred Zinnemann, was an Austrian Jew who had lost both parents in the Holocaust. He said he saw the movie as a metaphor for someone keeping up their principals in the face of encroaching fascism, while everyone around them cowers and hides.

Gary Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, who as the movie opens marries a pacifist quaker named Amy (Grace Kelly), and is given congratulations by all his friends and fellow townspeople, Kelly was 21 and Cooper was 50 at the time, but the movie doesn’t particularly care about that. Then word comes that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a ruthless outlaw Kane sent to jail for murder, was pardoned and will be arriving on the noon train to meet his gang so they can, you know, murder Kane and stuff. Everyone tells Kane that he should just leave town with Amy as they’d planned, but he says he can’t because of duty and honor. Most of the movie plays out in something approaching real time, as Dmitri Tiomkin’s “Ballad of High Noon” plays over and over and over on the soundtrack, basically describing the plot for some reason. Did movies do this at some point? Because it’s sort of bizarre.

Kane travels all around town in that time and finds that all those friends and admirers he had, including the Mayor (Thomas Mitchell), the Judge (Otto Kruger), and his bitter former deputy (Lloyd Bridges), are not willing to help him. Some are too self-interested (Kane is too honorable to cut any deals to get the help he needs). Some are too cowardly. Some think they’re doing the smart thing. They’ll play it cool until it all blows over. There’s a church meeting (directly parodied in Blazing Saddles) where the town debates whether to help him and eventually decides against it to save their own skins. Even Amy begs Kane to leave rather than shed blood. But he never wavers or really considers doing anything else.

Some moviegoers expecting a fun western were perturbed to discover that there’s basically one action sequence, right at the end where Kane finally fights the bad guys and Amy “gets over” her Pacifism in time to shoot Miller to save Kane. These detractors weren’t alone. John Wayne publicly reviled the movie, stating that no “real sheriff” would “run around town looking for help” instead of facing the bad guys like a man. His real problem was he thought the movie was a metaphor for the Red Scare, which he was convinced was a good thing. Wayne later said that he “never regretted running [Carl Foreman] out of the country.” He had many negative qualities, let’s say that. Anyway, he ended up making Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks as basically a direct rejoinder to this movie. By contrast, the Soviet Union officially banned the movie for its “glorification of the individual.” High Noon was a big favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars, but whether because of a campaign by conservatives or other reasons, it lost to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, a movie nobody watches anymore. Even at the time a lot of people saw it as something of a lifetime achievement award for DeMille.

Which goes to show you, this was a hit, and lots of people liked it then and still like it. It is so universal that everyone can find what they want in it, for good or ill. Though Blacklisted in Hollywood, Carl Foreman was able to move to the UK and still find work, including writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai. He was denied credit at the time, but decades later was informed he would given a retroactive Oscar only days before his death. Zinnemann, meanwhile, became one of the more in-demand directors in Hollywood, and won the Best Director Oscar the next year for From Here to Eternity.

One person who did win an Oscar for this movie was Gary Cooper (his second Best Actor trophy). He was one of the great stars of Hollywood from around the end of the silent era all the way up until the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, nearly always playing some kind of man of action, a western hero or a soldier. By contrast, this was the first really big role of Grace Kelly’s career, which lasted for only about five years but included several memorable movies. In 1955 she met Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Cannes Festival and the following year chose to permanently retire from acting to become Princess Grace of Monaco.

While some fans of westerns were turned off by a story consisting mostly of talking, it’s honestly the kind I’m most likely to be interested in. That said, High Noon’s somewhat simplistic morality I think keeps me from really getting into it the way a lot of other people seem to. I’m pretty much with Amy, in fact… if they just leave, none of this happens. He has a “duty,” but to who? Carl Foreman genuinely was the one dude who was right in a world of people out to get him, basically, but it’s much more common that someone thinks that’s the case and it turns out they’re the wrong one. You only have to spend ten minutes on Twitter to figure that out. 

Anyway, I want to mention Katy Jurado, who was a huge star in Mexico before trying to make it in American movies and having at least some success despite having to battle dumb prejudices. She plays, for my money, the most interesting character in the movie, Helen Ramirez, the owner of the saloon who slept with both Kane and Miller over the years. She’s the only person in the movie who’s not just good, just evil, or a coward. She is an independent businesswoman who’s now trying to sell her business because, you know, this town sucks. Which it basically does. She feels like a refugee from a much more complicated movie. Two years later she would become the first Latin American actress nominated for an Oscar, for Broken Lance.

6 thoughts on “HIGH NOON (1952)

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