d. Fred Zinnemann / USA / 85 mins.
Numerous sources report High Noon is the most requested film to be shown in the private movie theater of the White House. Dwight Eisenhower, who won the presidency the same year the film premiered, saw it three times, and Bill Clinton claims it to be his all-time favorite, screening it at least twenty times and recommending it, for better or worse, to George W. Bush.
It's an interesting fact, yet not at all surprising. What president hasn't presumably fantasized about having a Will Kane moment – the heroic point when everyone you'd known to be loyal fades away, leaving you to hold your ground alone, wearing your honor and your duty on your sleeve, and standing up for what you think is the righteous way of life? In any event, I'm sure part of the frequent screening of High Noon is that it's a man's-man movie, one I'm sure press secretaries love to associate with their bosses.
Fred Zinnemann's High Noon frequently ranks alongside John Ford's The Searchers as one of the best American westerns. The two are always interesting choices because they are such atypical contributions to the genre. Ford's film sprawls like a mesa across moral lines, imbuing in its hero an unbecoming and complicated racism that takes an entire film (if that) to resolve psychologically. Zinnemann's film contains relatively little action and unfolds slowly, appealing to the viewer's mental and emotional elements rather than feeding us intense action sequences. Coincidentally enough, my feelings about both films are similar – they're each good in their own right and are undoubtedly valuable to the culture (with the phrase "high noon" now commonly used to describe an historic showdown) and both films, while good, fail to raise my pulse significantly beyond the standard level of enjoyment.
The aforementioned Kane (Gary Cooper) is the town marshal, freshly married to a lovely Quaker woman (the first big role for Grace Kelly). Kane has to put his retirement on hold when a convict he put away is said to be coming back to town. The townspeople quivers while they wait for the ex-con to arrive, and one by one they rebuff Kane's attempt to form a posse and face the criminal. The film unfolds in virtual real time, which is at certain moments quite boring but also not as boring as you might imagine. Although High Noon has a gunfight in its final moments, the real action is the person-to-person kind, as Kane tries to recruit others to help him only to find his former support dissipating. If the ostensible bad guy is the ex-con come back for vengeance, then the real antagonist is Kane's callow ex-deputy, played by Lloyd Bridges.
High Noon is often cited as a liberal western in an age of the genre's strapping right-of-center conservatism. Screenwriter Carl Foreman admitted it was written in response to McCarthyism. John Wayne loathed it, telling Playboy it was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." (But he stared in The Conqueror!) In one of the staunchest screw-you's in Hollywood history, Wayne aided in getting Foreman on the blacklist and never regretted it.
Today it seems like a bold move to tackle McCarthyism in the masculine genre of the Hollywood western; science fiction had always been a more appropriate venue, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself was something of alien to the human race. Yet isn't it surprising how the film is still liked by audiences on both sides of the political spectrum? The reason is, I think, that High Noon can be about something as blatant as the blacklist while still appealing to the character traits we admire in anyone, regardless of philosophy: duty, honor, courage, and yes, even loyalty. Foreman and Wayne can argue in the afterlife over the film's politics, but here on Earth let me say, despite some awkward pacing problems, High Noon is a good and intelligent western and must-see for anyone.
17 August 2008
d. Fred Zinnemann / USA / 85 mins.