High Noon (1952)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

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High Noon takes place over the course of a tense but mostly uneventful 90 minutes, at least until the expected gunfight which ends the film.  The story concerns a freshly married, newly retired Marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), whose sense of duty compels him to stay on the job just a little bit longer when three known convicted criminals arrive in town.  They saunter over to the train station to await the arrival of the noon train, bringing along the leader of the gang who just so happens to have it out for the Marshall.

It’s the Marshal’s wife Amy (Grace Kelly) who insists they leave town at once.  Soon others will voice a similar opinion but for different reasons.  Despite their protests, Kane remains firm in his convictions.  He must stay behind, even though it’s no longer his official problem, and finish what he started.

There’s something a bit off about Will Kane throughout the film, and only halfway through the story do we hear from side characters who think less of the man we anticipate is the hero of the story.  The man Kane put away, it seems, was quite liked in town.  In this way the plot bears a similarity to The Hangman, a story about a bounty hunter determined to bring in a convicted criminal even when it seems he has changed his ways and become the moral center of that story.

As High Noon chugs along, however, it becomes more clear that we’re not meant to critique Kane’s line of thinking.  He is proven correct, that this is a problem worth dealing with even if it puts his own life (and that of his Amy’s) in danger.  The lasting image of the film reminds us that Kane is the definite hero of the story.

It didn’t seem so obvious to me, but after reading about the film the allusions to HUAC and the blacklisting policies in 1950s Hollywood become more evident and clarify some of the behavior of the townsfolk.  The Kane’s crusade, particularly in opposition to side characters meant to symbolize those who went along with the blacklisting or just kept their mouths shut, is thus a much more ideological one.  He pursues the gang leader Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) because of his own moral code, not the one given to him by his profession or by more personal motivations.

There is one telling scene in which an innkeeper criticizes Kane to Amy.  She asks why he doesn’t like him, and the innkeeper explains that business was much better before the Miller had been arrested.  His opinions parallel the thinking of the saloon owner who hopes Miller gives Kane what’s coming.

Another scene brings Kane to a church where he pleads for help in the forthcoming gunfight.  The priest and those in attendance have a thoughtful debate on the ethics of such a thing before all of them, despite supposed good intentions, decide to sit this one out.  They are much less antagonistic to Kane’s quest, but their lack of action is just as damaging.

So that leaves it to Will Kane, all by his lonesome self.  The gunfight ends victoriously for our hero, as it always seems it will, and it acts as a sort of epilogue to the heart of the story, detailing Kane’s fruitless search for someone to stand on his side.

The ‘villains’ spend just about the whole film sitting on a bench, off to the side of the havoc which their presence stirs up.  It’s not what they do within the story but the effect their existence has on other people that makes up the conflict.

Just as with HUAC, it was the blacklisting and the people doing the blacklisting that has the lasting impact, rather than the communism which so many people were frightened of.  The fear of communism came and went, and it’s what people did subsequently with that fear that created the more concrete problems.  Out of fear people may act selfishly or with anger and even violence.  The eventual conflicts all boil down to misguided feelings that may not even be based in reality.

High Noon is a nice, short western that makes great use of Gary Cooper’s tall, slender Jimmy Stewart-esque frame.  He trudges through the dirt like he’s slowly falling forward, each step possibly his last.  He marches on with a tireless but exhausted determination, a paradoxical equation just as mysterious as the problem he’s intent on combating.  His goal is so pure, so ideological, so selfless (depending on how you look at it and assuming you’re not his wife) that it’s as if he exists only to fight the good fight that no one else will.  Once it’s solved he can disappear back into dust, and if it’s not he might disappear all the same.

Up Next: Starship Troopers (1997), Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018), Woman Walks Ahead (2018)

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