High Noon is an old western film, but it actually is an incredible piece of cinematography and social commentary. First showing in 1952 and directed by Fred Zinnemann, the film starts with the wedding of Will Kane to a Quaker, Amy. The joyful audience presses for his badge as the town marshall, but right as he is about to set off into the sunset a telegram comes to him warning of the release of outlaw and killer Frank Miller. Miller, in fact, was aboard a passenger coach coming into town at high noon. At first, Will leaves at their bequest, but then returns quickly to uphold his self-projected duty to intercept Miller and any brouhaha that might be stirring. Expecting to find support to uphold the law, he spends the entire movie looking for supporters and being betrayed by their cowardice, greed, and even misplaced ideologies, including his own bride. Thus, he faces Miller and his three gunmen alone.
The film was heavily criticized in it’s time as a critique of the second Red Scare and its blacklisting of individuals believed to be communist supporters [3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_noon]. John Wayne, who actively supported black-listing, dubbed it, “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” [1. Manfred Weidhorn. “High Noon.” Bright Lights Film Journal. February 2005. Accessed 12 February 2008.] The main parallel is that all of the townspeople, deputies, and friends of the Marshall are afraid to offer their help in staving off the outlaws. In the case of Will’s former deputy, Harvey Pell, it was a matter of pride, since he wasn’t offered the marshall position because of his immaturity. For the congregation of old friends in the church who knew the merits of Will and even went so far as to praise his actions in the past, were too afraid to stand up and help now. His old friend and mentor said he had worked hard and long to defend justice, and for what? “What does a man with broken knuckles get but arthritis?” He said[2. High Noon, 1952]. His new wife even deserted him, saying her father and brother were once killed defending others, and violence was never the answer. All the while the outlaws wait at the train station.
I wanted to focus on certain tools of the film that were effective. First, Zinnemann used suspense effectively right from the beginning of the film. As soon as we learn of Miller’s acquittal, we know he will be returning to Hadleyville at High Noon on the train, and from then on it is a race against the clock. Will frequently checks the time as each one of his pleas for help fails. This reminder keeps the impending doom fresh and urgent. The outlaws continually stare down the disappearing railroad, waiting for the first glimpse of their leader. The camera shot shows the tracks disappear on the horizon, but we realize the train has nowhere to go but there. The most dramatic sequence plays out at the end of the film when the clock actually does strike twelve. Several pans to each of the betrayers, Will, the outlaws, the ticking clock, and the train’s whistle blow, set to a steady musical buildup string our nerves taught. I could only compare the suspense to that of the musical sequence in Jaws foreshadowing the shark’s attack. This sequence was the first of its type that so deliberately and effectively aligned the movie’s score to its events and editing.
While the acting was overly dramatic at times like many spaghetti westerns were, there was still a great feeling of betrayal and disgust portrayed by Gary Cooper (Will Kane). Every time Will is turned down, his face drops and his eyes
reveal his thoughts. Then, he quietly thanks the man who knowingly is sending him to his grave and walks away.
High Noon does an excellent job of building a compelling back story with the town’s store and saloon owner, Helen Ramirez. A former lover of Will’s, something between the two went awry and they separated. When he comes to tell her the news she knows already, she is visibly still angry at him. Later, we realize it is still a passion for him seated in a deep respect. When she and Amy are discussing their escape from the town, Helen questions Amy’s commitment saying, “I would never leave my man.” She seems sad that Will is no longer hers.
Lastly, the ending was extremely satisfying to me. Instead of being killed, Will succeeds in shooting down all four of the other outlaws one at a time in a great western battle around the empty town. Amy even comes back in the nick of time to redeem herself and save Will from one of the outlaws. All of the townspeople emerge after the fight to thank and congratulate Will, but he pulls the silver star from his chest and throws it to the dirt. Then he is gone. It is the perfect gesture to such a ungrateful town.
High Noon is a courageous film all around. Is it about Communism? Maybe that was a driving force behind making the film, and today we would certainly balk at any political black listing to such a degree as that of McCarthyism and the 50’s. But today the film is still politically relevant. I think of the bi-partisanship going on, where many of the people in my life may call themselves a democrat or republican, but identify with neither. Many of us want something different for our government and country, but honestly don’t have the power to stand against it. Why bother? Let me answer with a reference to a similar film in context, The Mission. At the end of The Mission, the religious leader discovers that his own orders have led to the annhilation of an entire tribe of people half a world away. One of the men dining with him tries to placate his guilt saying, “The world is thus.” He pauses to let the heaviness of his actions wobble within him, and he says, Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”[4. The Mission, 1986]