Monday, May 7, 2012

Movie – High Noon (1952)

The movie High Noon may be best known to general audiences today from dialogue in Die Hard where Hans and McClane are verbally sparring with each other over westerns.  (“That was Gary Cooper asshole.”)  If this is the case, then that is too bad.  High Noon is a very good movie that is a true classic in the genre and it deserves to be seen.  I would place it among the Top 5 westerns ever made.  Some in the media tried to derisively say George W. Bush saw himself as the Sheriff Will Kane character from this film, but ironically it was his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who named this his favorite movie of all time.  This may be fitting since politics played a big part in the creation of this film.  I will explain.

In 1952 McCarthyism was in full swing.  The House Un-American Committee had had many people in Hollywood blacklisted for either real or imagined Communist ties.  Some in Hollywood felt that those who supported McCarthy were deserting their friends in their time of need.  They decided to put that metaphor into a movie and made High Noon.  (On the other end of the spectrum, those who tried to show speaking out was correct ended up making 1954’s On the Waterfront – another great film.)

The movie opens with Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) having just gotten married to Amy (Grace Kelly).  You may question the age difference between the two (Cooper was 50 and Kelly was 21), but in real life the two ended up having an affair that lasted for the duration of the shoot.  This was Kelly’s second movie after 1951’s Fourteen Hours (you can read my review of that here.)  High Noon was a more sizable role for her and it started her on the road to stardom.

Kane and his wife are getting ready to leave town.  He has turned in his star and is retiring to start a family.  Just then news comes that a criminal named Frank Miller – one that Kane had sent to jail – was out of prison and arriving in town on the Noon train.  Everyone knows that he is coming to get his revenge on Kane.

Everyone tells Kane he should run.  He’s not the Sheriff anymore and he should use the opportunity to get as far away from town as possible because Miller won’t be alone.  Even his wife, who is concerned about her new husband being killed, urges him to leave.  Everyone tells him it’s not his job any more to protect the town.

This is not the kind of man Will Kane is.  He can’t imagine either running or leaving the town at the mercy of this criminal and his gang.  He takes back the Sheriff’s star and pins it on.  He then starts talking with people about preparing to meet this gang.  He gets the shock of his life; the town completely abandons him.  They figure that the criminal isn’t mad at them; he only wants revenge on Kane.  If they help Kane they might end up on the wrong end of Miller’s gun, too.  In addition to being cowards, they are also petulant because Kane didn’t take their advice to leave.

Kane can’t believe that everybody would abandon him.  He talks with several people he thinks he can count on, but even his own deputy (Lloyd Bridges) is against him.  Some people think that if Kane sees he has no support he will still leave.  Again, this is not the kind of man that Will Kane is.  He decides that even though he will likely die, it’s his moral and professional duty to meet the Noon train and deal with Miller as best he can.

The movie keeps emphasizing the Noon train.  They show clocks many times as the minutes tick away.  This creates a great amount of tension in the film.  The fascinating thing is that the clocks mostly sync up.  The film plays out almost in real time.  It starts about 10:30 AM and ends around 12:15 PM and its running time is an hour and a half.

Watch for some familiar faces in this film – Lon Chaney, Jr., Harry Morgan (TV’s MASH), Lee Van Cleef in his first screen role already getting typecast as a villain, and character actor Jack Elam (you’ll recognize him by his eyes).

Some people consider this film a “comeback” for Cooper.  His star had started to fade a little bit because of his age.  If it was a comeback, it sure was a great one.  He ended up winning his second Best Actor Oscar.  In a strange twist, John Wayne accepted the award for Cooper and took the opportunity to say how un-American he felt the movie was.  Wayne was among those who strongly supported McCarthy and Wayne knew this film was an attack on blacklisting.

Among the film’s three other Oscar wins was one for the song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin”.  Why am I mentioning this?  Because it was the first time that the Oscar winning song had not come from a Musical.  The song went on to become a popular hit and it showed Hollywood that they could get synergy by placing a song in a non-musical film and then release it as a single.  This is a highly prevalent practice today.

High Noon would lose Best Picture to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth – a loss now compared to Raging Bull losing to Ordinary People.  Some people feel High Noon’s loss was due to an attempt to appease McCarthy, both from High Noon losing, and from DeMille’s movie winning because he was a big supporter of McCarthy.  By the way, I like The Greatest Show on Earth, but I like High Noon better.

If you want to see a film that shows someone standing up for what he believes in and putting his life on the line to do the right thing, even when everyone around him is deserting him, then this is the definitive example.  The only people I might warn away from this are those who can’t help themselves from reading relatively current events into a sixty year old movie.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. The first song from a non-musical to win an Oscar... that's a great piece of trivia, I didn't know that. You're right, the epic comeback of Cooper!

  2. @Lesya Hearst - Thanks. Looking back through Cooper's films it had been a few years since he had done a film that is still considered a classic today.

  3. High Noon far surpasses The Greatest Show on Earth. Obviously, losing was a result of the idiotic behavior of politicians, the American public, and Hollywood. A witch hunt is a witch hunt--how many people speak fondly of Cotton Mather and the rest of his clan? McCarthy was a drunk and a liar, and I'm glad Fred Zinnemann and Stanley Kramer stood up to him (at least metaphorically). How idiotic was it to have the biggest Fascist in Hollywood accept your award.

  4. @KimWilson - I'm not sure what the story was behing Wayne being there to accept the award for Cooper. Maybe Cooper didn't have a say in it and the Academy just picked someone famous to come up.