Sunday, April 5, 2015

High Noon - Movie Review

Until recently, I thought all Westerns consisted of a simple, boring formula - a man, a gun, a frontier. I was wrong. All Westerns do consist of a simple formula - a man, a gun, a frontier - but it's far from boring. Like the murder mystery (a genre of which I am a devotee), the formula has been buffed and polished till it nearly loses its originality, but given the clearly defined parameters, it can be spun into infinite varieties.

For instance, you have The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which is a Western - but with ideas and a cameo from George Bailey. You have The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which is a Western - but with black humor, eccentric music, and an edgy moral ambiguity setting it apart from the more stolid John Wayne fare. You have The Man From Snowy River which is a Western - but in Australia. You have Life on Mars which is a Western - but in 1980s Manchester. The formula is effective, but far more flexible than I imagined.

Then you have High Noon, which is more cookie-cutter Western than any of those I mentioned - but with a ticking clock to rival The Bourne Identity's. It clocks in at 84 minutes, and takes place in (almost) real time, as death approaches, as inevitable, as inescapable as the creeping minutes.

Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a hardened sheriff who has sworn off violence to marry pacifist Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly).

Directly after their wedding, Will learns that an old enemy, Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) has escaped the noose on a technicality. Miller will be arriving on the noon train (shocker), and is out for Will's blood. The newly minted Kane family skip town, but before long, Will's conscience catches up to him and despite Amy's protestations, he turns back. It's the beginning of a tangle of justifications for Will - first he says he's never run before, and he's not starting now - then he says Frank Miller will never stop hunting them, so they might as well stay and face him. Both of these excuses bear some truth, but the inconsistency foreshadows that Will's past might not be as cut-and-dry as Gary Cooper's heroic stardom suggests.

Miller's men (one of whom is a very young, surprisingly handsome Lee Van Cleef) are waiting for him at the train station, looking generally sinister. One of them even comes into town and interacts with the increasingly nervous townspeople.

Will is ready for a climactic showdown, but isn't particularly worried when his one official deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), abandons him. He's got plenty of time to go throughout Hadleyville and recruit a posse, as he did the last time. Or does he? The noose constricts inch by inch as citizen after citizen give excuses, apologize profusely, shut the door, and batten down the hatches. Not our problem. I didn't sign up for this. Why don't you just leave town?

The situation forces both Will and Amy to face up to Will's past life. Amy, from the first, resisted her husband's plans. It would seem that she has even more reason to abandon him when she meets Will's old flame, sultry Latina Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), but her reaction is more complicated. For Will, all this means testing the quality of the community he has defended for so long.

Interestingly, for a Western, there's remarkably little violence. True, we have the conventional Hero-Gets-Beat-Up-Halfway-Through-Movie scene (is that a convention? or is it just something that happens in every Clint Eastwood film?), but instead of setting up a villain for us to hate, Will's antagonist is trying to save Will - at least, his vision of salvation.

While Will's motivations for deciding to stay and fight are mixed, the film is certain that staying is a very fine thing for Will to do, and that abandoning him is a very rotten thing for everyone else to do. Will's stand produces a mixture of admiration, envy, hatred, and guilt in the people around him. They admire his courage; they resent that it exposes their own cowardice; they hate him for forcing them to make a decision; they feel guilty because they know, despite their reason, that choosing logical safety over principled courage is wrong. The character of Harvey reminds me markedly of Richard Rich from A Man for All Seasons (also directed by Fred Zinnemann). Harvey and Rich are small men who recognizes the nobility of their mentors, but cannot find the bravery to emulate them.

This film is seen by many as a metaphor for McCarthyism. Seeing it now, without that context, I think mostly of modern menaces on free speech and exercise of principle. The genius of the film is that it does not confine itself to particular political circumstances - and its story remains fresh today.

We don't get many of these stories anymore. Now, we identify with the caviling townspeople, who wonder why anyone would risk so much for something so intangible. Aren't they merely trying to make a point? Well, let them. If they lose their jobs, if they go into hiding, well, it was their decision, wasn't it?

Do not forsake me, O my darling...

Hannah Long

(Happy Easter!)

Free download (posted by the singer) here.


  1. One of my all-time favorite films. I happen to think the House Un-American Activities Committee were the good guys, so I just kind of shrug when I read about how the script-writer had McCarthyism in mind. For my money it's just a great movie no matter how you slice it. Kind of like On the Waterfront on the other side of the political coin.

    1. I really enjoyed it. As for the House Un-American Activities Committee - I'm no expert on any of that, but I'm not a huge fan of enforcing the right beliefs in the wrong way.

    2. You should read Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Then I think you'll understand better. It's a long read, but a really important one.


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