In the preface to his book The Fifties, David Halberstam observes that the 1950s were actually a more exciting, turbulent decade than people remember. ‘Others were made uneasy by the degree of conformity around them, as if the middle-class living standard had been delivered in an obvious trade-off for blind acceptance of the status quo,’ he writes.
Is there a movie that better captures that overlooked attitude than High Noon? You can go on and on about Gary Cooper and the story’s high moral code (it’s one of Bill Clinton’s favorite movies), and that’s all well and good. But the movie is really about the staggering power of complacency, both then and now. It’s doubtful that message was received during the movie’s release in 1952. Watch the movie in today’s climate of uncertainty and fear, and it hits you like a frying pan over the head. It’s not the only reason to love this movie, but it’s a hell of a start.
Cooper plays Will Kane, the marshal of a small town whose wedding marks his last day on the job. He’s about to start a new life with his peace-embracing lady (Grace Kelly), when word gets out that an unwelcome visitor is looking for Kane. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who Kane put in jail years ago, has been pardoned and is coming to town on the noon train, his boys waiting for him. Kane has about 90 minutes to leave forever, and has certainly earned the right to do so. He decides, though, to stay and take care of his responsibility.
Recruiting volunteers to fight four armed men shouldn’t be that hard. Kane is a respected member of the community, an honorable man who brought this dusty town to prominence, but as time screams by, he finds that there are no takers. The judge is leaving. His deputies hide behind their families or personal flaws. Appeals to the parishioners at the town church and the saloon go unanswered. If Kane leaves, the threat goes away. Why in the world should anyone else handle it? Isn’t it Kane’s mess?
This ethical quandary drives High Noon, as the notion of heroism and civic loyalty being permanent qualities gets discarded like yesterday’s garbage. As soon as those qualities aren’t convenient or absolutely necessary, director Fred Zinneman and writer Carl Foreman suggest, people want nothing to do with them. It’s hard to imagine just how risky this pose was in 1952, with America’s patriotism still on the high of World War II and not yet destroyed by the Vietnam War. The message is still timely, but High Noon‘s packaging gives it sting. It looks like a conventional western, but that uncertain cloud of morality makes it special.
High Noon isn’t politically overbearing because it’s so enjoyable at face value. Zinnemann films the movie in real time, so there’s a sense of creeping dread as doors slam in Kane’s face. Zinnemann also provides his own quiet commentary. After getting refused by the church, Kane steps outside to a game of tug of war, which sums up everything. As Kane meets his fate, Zinnemann provides an aerial shot of a solitary Kane walking through town and we realize just how alone he is. Cooper is perfectly cast. He’s weary and somber, but he’s almost always composed. He’s an uncertain hero. And his face is so expressive, telling the whole story of his ordeal, that there is no need for him to wail and whine to the heavens.
It’s sometimes hard to define a ‘classic’ movie because it’s linked to a particular era or to a particular population. The motivations behind fear and heroism will always change, but they’ll never go away. For that reason, neither will High Noon.
The new Collector’s Edition DVD (grandly restored) includes a commentary track from a collection of experts and progeny of the cast and crew, plus a second disc with a variety of making-of featurettes, retrospectives, and documentaries about the movie.