Often referenced as ‘the existential western’, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) is a controversial classic that arguably broke the mold and matured an entire genre from its cut and dry Saturday matinee heroics. There had been others who endeavored to add girth to the stories set against this stark and uniquely American landscape; most notably, John Ford. Yet, for all his lyrical tomes, Ford’s vision of the West remained firmly anchored to an impossibly plainspoken sense of nobility; the belief and promise of the frontier experience left intact for others to discover, perennially infused with a streak of the adventurer’s spirit. Zinnemann’s impressions are quite different; far less flattering and infinitely more bizarre. The townspeople who populate the remote outpost of Hadleyville in High Noon are all stricken with a chronic ennui for their way of life; tired, even of life itself, neither seeking greener pastures beyond their picket fences, or perhaps unable to acknowledge them as such from the vantage of abject surrender. Enfeebled town prophet, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.) puts it thus to Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who has come to him seeking counsel and advice. “You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star. People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.”
And indeed, beneath the cordial – and collective – refusal of each member of this town council Kane has tapped to stand tall alongside him, there is more than just the fear of death; a sort of repressed resentment for Kane’s principles, the law, and, its inability to keep a desperado like Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) outside their borders for good. Better now to allow Miller his run of Main Street, so long as he keeps his lawlessness confined to the saloon and his revenge limited to the murder of the man who put him behind bars in the first place. Encouraging Kane to hightail it out of town before the noonday train arrives does not augment this gesture with magnanimity. In fact, it remains a rather opportunistic charade; a way to kill two birds with one stone, sparing the town the indignation of seeing their hero fall while saving face once Miller has returned; diverting his reprisals to that desert pursuit of his arch nemesis far away from their town. The situation is further complicated by Kane’s lingering affections for ‘business woman’, Helen Ramirez (Katie Jurado) who astutely recognizes Kane’s recent marriage to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), not as a reformation of his predilections repeatedly satisfied in her boudoir, but rather, as an affirmation of Kane’s good ole boy reemerging, miraculously untarnished by their time spent together and much better suited to Amy’s temperament. Nice girls go straight at the altar. But bad girls can go everywhere whenever they damn well please. Helen recognizes Kane will always be a man of integrity. Despite his flaws, he can make Amy a good husband. But can Amy do Kane justice as his wife? Helen respects Kane. In fact, she is probably the only person to fully empathize with his viewpoint as an outcast – being one, herself. Helen respects how much Kane is being torn apart by his nagging conscience. He must flee. To remain behind is certain death. Alas, Kane cannot abandon his principles any more than he will allow injustice to prevail where only yesterday he planted the seeds necessary for the integrity of the law to thrive.
The return of Frank Miller is hateful to Kane, but bitter still if he chooses escape instead of confrontation. There is no easy way out. The town will surely suffer; he and Amy, forever on the run looking over their shoulders. It is this backward slide from the respectability and security that Kane cannot abide. He will not abandon Hadleyville even if its citizenry would prefer it. Interestingly, Helen and Amy form a quiet, if unusual bond; the novice bride and this experienced woman of the world – partners in support of one man’s salvation. Neither is prepared to ‘like’ the other, and yet, each discovers something modestly rewarding; Helen, Kane’s past, nobly stepping aside to allow the girl of his present, to enter freely and without reservations. What Helen vehemently resents is Amy’s naiveté in not being able to recognize the insurmountable odds set against the man to whom she has given her heart but not her gutsy determination. “What kind of woman are you?” Helen proposes with dark and flashing eyes as Amy prepares to leave Will on the same inbound train carrying Frank Miller to town, “How can you leave him like this? Does the sound of guns frighten you that much?” to which Amy fervently replies, “I've heard guns before. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn't help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker. I don't care who's right or who's wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live. Will knows how I feel about it.”
No one will take a stand against Miller; not Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) – a devil’s advocate of a mayor; nor Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), nor even Kane’s own Deputy Marshal, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), who would appreciate Miller’s complicity to expunge Kane and his galvanized reputation as an impeccable lawman from the historic record. Harvey fancies himself the heir apparent to Kane’s mantle of quality, though without Kane’s inherent goodness, forthrightness or moral compass. He simply likes to wear the tin star. The singular vote for justice is Kane, craggy and careworn, impeccably crafted by Gary Cooper as a quietly anxious, yet wholly sincere salt of the earth. Kane cannot conceive of ‘his’ town slipping back into the godless mire from which his earlier devotions to it brought forth such prosperity. Yet, Kane is not driven by ego to keep what is his, viewing progress as a communal effort for the benefit of all. In his soul, Kane has remained the epitome of the weary idealist, despite every fiber of his virtue now being tested with Miller’s early release from prison. Even as Kane weighs his options, Miller’s men are amassing at the depot to exact their revenge with relish.
High Noon is unequivocally an allegory for one man’s crusade against villainy. But it also raises a mirror more apropos to the times in which the picture was made, asking the harder question, of what value is freedom when those who would desire to reap its benefits are equally as disinterested to defend its cause from the oppression of genuine tyranny? Over the years, Carl Foreman’s screenplay has been reinterpreted as everything from a frank deconstruction of one man’s moral compass adrift in a sea of ambiguous hypocrites, to a scathing indictment of mid-western American core values. This latter critique was enough to blacklist Foreman from working in Hollywood under his own name for many years, even after the McCarthy ‘Red Scare’ and witch hunts had died down. In reality, Foreman’s adaptation of John W. Cunningham’s The Tin Star is very faithful to its source. Even more ironic: Cunningham was never branded a communist for his views. Yet, even before pre-production began, High Noon garnered controversy over its central casting of the middle-aged Gary Cooper, opposite a very young, Grace Kelly. This was Kelly’s first major movie role; twenty-two years Coop’s junior, causing the Production Code to raise a few disparaging eyebrows over their May/December marriage. Indeed, Coop’ was old enough to be Kelly’s father. The Code also took umbrage to the inference both the marshal and his deputy had been regular customers of the town prostitute. Despite these concerns, Foreman’s screenplay would remain relatively untouched by intervening hands and personal tastes.
To suggest High Noon was made under considerable acrimony and the heavy weight of many personalized tensions is an understatement. At the very least, Foreman’s blacklisting after he refused to name names during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in 1947 had established him as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Treated as a hostile witness by the committee, Foreman’s staunchly entrenched views caused his business associate, producer, Stanley Kramer to demand an immediate dissolution of their partnership. However, as a signatory to the production loan, Foreman would remain under contract and continue to work on High Noon, his last major writing assignment in Hollywood. Kramer would later claim Foreman had threatened to falsely give his name to the committee, largely out of spite. And while Zinnemann would downplay Foreman’s involvement on the project, it was later revealed Foreman had stayed on as part of the creative team well into its production phase; often sitting off to the side while key scenes were being shot. High Noon ought to have starred John Wayne. Indeed, Kramer had wanted Wayne for the plum part. For one reason or another, Wayne turned the project down; perhaps, wary of Foreman’s involvement, or simply to distance himself from any film that might hint at the spank of communist propaganda. After that, the part of Will Kane was shopped around to Gregory Peck, who declined it, not out of support for HUAC (in fact, Peck resolutely opposed the blacklist), but rather because he felt it too similar to the lead he had just played in 1950’s The Gunfighter. Miraculously, the part was still not Gary Cooper’s for the asking. Only after Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster all said ‘no’ did Cooper’s name get tossed into the mix. Today, it is all but impossible to imagine anyone but Gary Cooper in the part. Perhaps, Zinnemann was aware of Cooper’s ailing health – a bleeding ulcer and a bad back that made Coop’ very reluctant to participate in the stunt fights with the infinitely more robust and younger, Lloyd Bridges. Nevertheless, when the time came, Coop’ refused to have his stunts done by a double.
Principle photography on High Noon began in late summer 1951, utilizing Iverson’s ‘movie ranch’ in Oakdale California, a substitute for the Hadleyville depot; also, the Columbia Ranch and Columbia State Historic Park, where a facsimile of Hadleyville itself was erected out of plywood. Exteriors of the town church were actually shot at St. Joseph’s in Tuolumne City, but interiors were a full size set built on a sound stage. Zinnemann asked cinematographer, Floyd Crosby to give the picture an overall look of sun-baked desolation – no pretty skies full of white fluffy clouds or expansive vistas, scarred by blazing sunsets. To achieve this look, Crosby used no filters to diffuse the natural light and also instructed that all prints struck from this footage were to be made a few points lighter than normal, affording the movie exteriors a very bleached-out appearance. For the first time in movie history, the actual run time and that of the story being told on screen closely paralleled one another; Zinnemann punctuating the effect by frequently cutting away to a series of clocks telling the correct time. When the rough cut was assembled for the studio brass, all concurred something special had been captured out there in the tumbleweed. High Noon was shaping up to be a superior western drama and quite possibly, one of the finest movies of any genre yet made in the United States.
Upon its release High Noon received high praise and absolute condemnations from those in the industry as well as film critics. There was no happy medium. One either loved or despised the results. As if to reaffirm his own anti-communist slant in support of HUAC, John Wayne went very public with his adamant declaration High Noon was the worst movie he had ever seen; a sentiment echoed by director, Howard Hawks who felt so strongly about it he made 1959’s Rio Bravo as something of a rebuttal. With all due respect to Hawks and the Duke, their opinions may have been more colored than clearly rendered on a judgement of something else beyond the movie. And Rio Bravo, despite being a fine western in its own right, is clearly no High Noon! Noted film critic, Bosley Crowthers famously labeled High Noon ‘a western for people who don’t like westerns’, adding, ‘there is scarcely a false note in the production or casting’ and citing Zinnemann’s direction as methodically tense. Indeed, more accolades were to follow, the public showing its support at the box office and the Academy bestowing 7 Oscar nominations and four gold statuettes for Best Actor, Film Editing, Original Song – ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, and finally, score by noted composer, Dimitri Tiomkin. Today, removed from all its timely hype, High Noon endures as a far more progressive western with much to say about the mediocrities of life and the good that one individual can achieve – alas, to what purpose when those he seeks to help are unwilling even to help themselves? In the end, High Noon plays more as the parable it was conceived to be rather than a subversive euphemism for political paranoia.
Our story begins with Marshal Will Kane’s marriage to a lovely Quaker bride, Amy Fowler. A respected pillar of Hadleyville’s small community, Kane has decided to hang up his tin star and honor his wife’s Quaker principles by becoming a farmer. The two will live obscurely, but seemingly blissfully. It’s a lovely fairytale; the dream deflated as Kane’s departure from Hadleyville is interrupted by news Frank Miller, the notorious outlaw Kane arrested and sent to prison, has been exonerated at trial and is heading back into town to meet up with his gang and avenge his incarceration. Kane is urged by Mayor Jonus Henderson to leave town immediately. There’s not a moment to spare. But Kane is reluctant to flee from this place he has worked so tirelessly to civilize. His former deputy (nee acting Marshal) Harvey Pell is in even more of a hurry to see Kane go, misperceiving that without Kane’s presence the people will naturally gravitate their affections over to him for counsel and protection. But Harvey is a greedy sort. He sees the post of Marshal for what he can get out of it, not what he can put into it and give back to the community. Nevertheless, the whole town council agrees Kane should leave post haste. Kane and Amy are escorted to a waiting carriage. Alas, as Kane punts the horses with a crack of the whip, putting considerable distance between themselves and Hadleyville, he begins to suffer from a crisis of conscience. After all, he has left Hadleyville vulnerable to Miller’s influence. And simply by leaving town he has not prevented the maniacal Miller from seeking him out on the open road. It’s no use. The hunter has become the hunted. Unable to reconcile his former duties as marshal and the overwhelming sense of loyalty he feels for the town, Kane bitterly informs Amy they must go back.
Meanwhile, back in town, Harvey makes a play for the prostitute, Helen Ramirez. Despite her hard shell, Helen fell in love with Kane a long time ago – a love that has since refused to die. She sees through Harvey and finds his ambitions rather shallow. Arriving back in town, Kane leaves Amy at the same hotel Helen is staying at, instructing her to take a room until he can settle his business with Frank Miller. But Amy stands her ground. She tells Kane she intends to leave Hadleyville on the noonday train and if he isn’t at the depot by then he needn’t bother to follow her later – that is, if he is not shot dead first by Miller and his gang. Kane reluctantly leaves Amy behind to begin organizing a posse to defend the town. Kane’s faith in the town is shaken to its core when he quickly finds abject reluctance, even cowardice prevailing in the face of danger. It seems the whole town would rather complacently sit back and allow Miller and his gang back into their fold than fight for justice on their own terms. Judge Percy Mettrick implores Kane to leave before Miller’s arrival on the noonday. Meanwhile, Miller’s gang comprised of his brother, Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) and Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke) has already begun to assemble at the depot.
This assignation sobers Kane up. He realizes how foolish he has been in returning to face Miller alone. Nobody wants bloodshed…but peace at what price? As a last ditch effort Kane appeals to Harvey to stand beside him. But Harvey reveals his truer jealousies toward Kane now before ordering him to get out of town. Kane refuses. The two spar inside an old barn until Kane eventually beats Harvey to a pulp – reaffirming for Harvey what the town already knows to be true about him; that he will always remain a pale ghost of the law in Kane’s shadow. Meanwhile, Amy confronts Helen inside the hotel. Helen is cordial but hardly polite. The women exchange glances, then words, and finally mixed emotions about the man they both so obviously love. Helen agrees to take Amy to the depot to meet the noonday, but chides her for running out on her husband – something Helen insists she would never do. At the station the women see Miller’s gang. Fearful she has made a terrible mistake in running away, Amy waits until the last possible moment; then hurries back into town on foot at the first sound of gunfire. Will faces down Miller and his men alone. He manages to shoot Jack and Ben dead, but is wounded in arm. Forsaking her religious convictions to save her husband, Amy takes up arms and shoots Jim in the back. Regrettably, Frank Miller comes up from behind and takes Amy hostage. As he drags her into the middle of town to lure Kane from his hiding spot, Amy manages to free herself and Kane shoots Miller dead before contemptuously casting his tin star into the dust and driving away with his bride. There is nothing left for either of them in Hadleyville now and for the very first time, Kane realizes it too.
High Noon is an extremely sobering indictment on the failure of a community to defend itself, not because the odds are too great; rather, due to its own laziness to uphold virtues it knows to be true and sacred, though mis-perceived as too difficult to defend. In hindsight, the picture casts a fairly unflattering allegorical reflection on society at large, so eager, yet so blind and hungry for the mirage of a virtuous and omnipotent authority to sweep in and provide a safe haven for all, that in absence of such a myth it is willing to accept even corruption itself, simply to fill the position with a warm body. Zinnemann’s movie surmises people do not drink the sand from a mirage because they are thirsty. They sip it because they lack the ability to discern it from the life-giving waters. In this penultimate moment of surrender (Kane casting his tin star into the dust where it belongs) High Noon achieves a sort of fabled distinction no other western made before or since its time has challenged. The town has cost Kane and Amy everything. And Gary Cooper’s expression as he silently acknowledges his contempt for the townsfolk gathered to gawk at the remains of the fallen sickens Kane. After all, he nearly sacrificed his love and a good woman and for what? His stubborn morality forced Amy to forsake her Quaker principles. Can she ever forgive him for being compelled to come to his aid when no one else would, and thus betray a piece of her own heart and soul, merely to protect those who have proven wholly unworthy of the effort? In forsaking her devout religious beliefs, Amy Fowler has forfeited her naive optimism about the world at large. In some ways, she has suddenly matured to a lighter shade of Helen Ramirez; the remainder of her fresh-cheeked bloom destined to rub off after the couple has shared their wedding night.
Yet, despite its downtrodden finale, few westerns and even fewer films have left the viewer more remorseful and yet fulfilled and rallying to a cause. We respect Kane’s decision to remain behind and stand his ground even as we recognize (as he does in the end) it was the wrong decision. We feel for Kane’s overwhelming sense of loss, his deflated patriotism and dismantled faith in friendships as tarnished as his tin star. And we suddenly recognize Kane’s abandonment of the town, as he has been abandoned by it, as a tale as timeless as mankind itself: the rugged individualist standing on principles alone for a committee of hypocrites who lack the initiative. These are sobering revelations that flair up in our collective consciousness even as Kane departs Hadleyville without a word spoken to the men and women whom he considered friends only a few hours before, but now appear to him as less than strangers along the open road to nowhere. Gary Cooper is the perfect western hero for High Noon; aged and weather-beaten as the sagebrush, yet staunchly refusing to bend. How much of Kane’s magnificence can actually be credited to Coop’s acting style, as opposed to owed the cache of his built-in star power is open for discussion. Nevertheless, there is greatness in Coop’s performance, a peerless example of tragic disillusionment.
Like a good many westerns, High Noon plays off the traditions and duality of good vs. evil. Unlike most, it is a far subtler critique of where to draw the line, with alarming tonalities of morally gray ambiguity frequently intruding. In many ways, Lloyd Bridge’s Harvey, not Frank Miller, is the real nemesis of the piece: the antithesis of Cooper’s Kane – egotistical, stocky, self-seeking and lacking in convictions beyond his own greed. Harvey is attracted to Helen Ramirez; the woman Cooper’s Kane gave up for Amy. Just as Amy represents the sort of woman Helen would like to have been (and arguably, once was) Bridges’ Harvey presents a sort of fallen masculinity; as Helen earlier tries to explain, “It takes more than broad shoulders to be a man.” But the real evil descending on Hadleyville is not Miller or his gang, rather, the loss of purpose and weakened resolve the whole town must share in. There is little about the ending of High Noon to suggest Hadleyville’s citizenry will rally together in Kane’s absence, despite being reunited in their shame under the large-looming shadow of his bravery. Yet, Kane’s heroics do not stir the town to do better or even reconsider their own moral ambiguity. Rather, Kane’s absence has left an irresoluble void that cannot – and probably never will - be filled.
The first of Olive Media’s ‘Signature Edition’ Blu-rays, High Noon’s reissue considerably improves on its previous Blu-ray release. Frankly, it is about time this company, with so many licensing agreements to distribute a slew of classic movies, began taking the task seriously. Olive is what I have sincerely classified in the past as one of the bottom feeders of third-party distribution. Most of their discs are bare bones and sporting image quality that is in very rough to middling shape at best. Yet, the initial release of High Noon from them did not look all that bad. In fact, I was marginally pleased with it back in 2009. So, is this the same regurgitated transfer with just a few gussied up extras? No! It’s better in unanticipated ways that only serve to augment one’s viewing experience. Not only is this reissue the beneficiary of some modest clean-up that has virtually eradicated all age-related scratches, but what we have here is a brand new 4K scan and restoration; grain structure in particular, markedly improved; the main titles, less contrasty and minus the few minor ringing halos/shadows that persisted before; black levels more deeply saturated and fine detail ever so slightly refined. The image quality throughout is thoroughly impressive. In short, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here.
The DTS mono audio sounds virtually identical to the previous release, which is not a bad thing, but rather impressively rendered with Dimitri Tiomkin’s sparse score and Tex Ritter’s lonesome title track exhibiting a nuanced freshness. Perhaps even more miraculous, Olive has dug in deep to produce some new and revealing extras: A Ticking Clock – hosted by Mark Goldblatt that discusses the editing of High Noon; A Stanley Kramer Production - Michael Schlesinger’s featurette on Kramer’s role as producer, Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon with historian, Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter, Walter Bernstein; Ulcers and Oscars: The Production History of High Noon - a visual essay with rarely seen archival elements, narrated by Anton Yelchin, and finally, Uncitizened Kane - an original essay by Sight & Sound editor, Nick James. Esteemed restoration expert, Robert A. Harris has commented that with this release Olive Media is making their “move into Criterion territory”. Personally, I think it a shay premature to hope for as much. A handful of planned re-releases scheduled to round out 2016 hardly makes up for Olive’s spotty past track record. But like Mr. Harris, I sincerely hope this Signature Edition of High Noon is the turning point for Olive and thoroughly laud their methods, but more importantly, their results. Bottom line: High Noon: The Signature Edition is a blue ribbon Blu-ray winner. We finally have one of cinema’s rare treasures looking decades younger and more vital than ever before – and, in a comprehensively assembled package with goodies to boot. Wow and thank you!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)